ST. BERNARD, La. - St. Bernard deputies have arrested a man for allegedly stealing dozens of Christmas gifts meant for needy children from a church in Violet over the weekend.
Around 3 a.m., deputies arrested 45-year-old Herman Peter Smiles.
According to police, Smiles is currently on parole after serving 11 years on another burglary arrest. Officials said Smiles said he was initially looking for money when he broke in the church, and admitted to having a drug problem and confessed to the crime.
On either Dec. 19 or Dec. 20, Smiles allegedly busted out a window at Our Lady of the Lourdes Catholic Church on Colonial Boulevard with a large cement block and stole 65 gifts intended to be donated to the needy and a cross, according to Cannizaro.
Smiles left a shoe print at the scene and was cut on the window he smashed. 'Bloody fingerprints were found on the side of the church's Tabernacle and blood was also found on the floor and a door case behind the baptismal fountain,' said Cannizaro.
All of the gifts have been recovered by police, said Chief Deputy Sheriff James Pohlmann.
'His explanation of the burglary was as simple as, he's on drugs,' said Pohlmann. 'He's a local crack-cocaine abuser.'
Smiles, according to Pohlmann, had been binging on crack and broke into the church to find money, found the gifts and thought he might be able to sell them on the streets for money.
Smiles told police that he spent about an hour inside the church unwrapping presents, taking the ones that he thought had value, making two trips hauling the presents from the church to his house. Smiles lived nearby.
The burglary did not the damped the Christmas spirit, causing an outpouring from the community as the stream of people bearing gifts to replace the stolen ones was non-stop.
'Something that started out so bad, has multiplied in the efforts that we wanted to do,' said Father John Arnone.
The church re-opened exactly one month ago, for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. This past weekend, though, someone broke in-- ransacking and stealing gifts meant for needy children and the elderly.
'We were just devastated because it's not so much our spiritual home that was violated. It's the fact that these children would not have the Christmas we thought they would have,' said parishioner Mary Ann Bazile.
Then, the spirit of the season began to appear, in the form of people coming with carloads and truckloads of gifts.
'I just said, 'I've got to do something,'' said Cherie Rose.
Rose heard about the church's plight and drove in from Jefferson Parish with her two daughters, bearing gifts for one of the families in need.
'I thought this was a great opportunity to show my kids, what an outpouring of love this is,' Rose said. 'So, I said, 'we are going to get these kids the gifts that they were going to expect and bring them to this church.''
Volunteers spent the day in church sorting the gifts. The outpouring of donations has been tremendous, with some of them coming in from beyond the New Orleans metro area.
'I've had people from Wisconsin and Ohio that have seen it online and have called as well, to see how they can help,' Father Arnone said.
'It's just been phenomenal, phenomenal, the outpouring,' Bazile said. 'Every time somebody calls, you get goose bumps, because it's like everyone wants to do their part. It's just unbelievable.'
With this sign of the season, however, comes a sign of the times: workershave now installed an alarm system in the church, to make sure the break-in that happened on Sunday, never happens again. The St. Bernard Sheriff's Office is investigating the theft.
'It's not right,' Rose said. 'What will triumph is goodness.'
It is a goodness that parishioners say has come at a time when the church came back from the brink.
'To have this church reopen, it's a miracle in itself,' Bazile said, 'but this is our Christmas miracle now.'
Originally, the church planned to give out gifts to 65 children and about 100 seniors. With so many donations, though, they are able to give to many more people now. Volunteers plan on delivering the gifts to the needy children and the elderly on Wednesday.