Murals painted in Latino communities with the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe are so respected that it’s extremely rare to find them damaged.
In fact, those creating murals of various themes consider including a rendering of “The Patroness of the Americas,” to protect their public artwork from graffiti.
Given that history, it’s been described as “unthinkable” that a mural of “La Virgen” on private church property would not only be marred, but violently smashed.
A man was captured on a security video at St. Elisabeth Catholic Church — located on Kittridge Street near Van Nuys High School — approaching their mural wielding a long sledgehammer, and hitting the mural 13 times focusing on the face of the holy image.
While the man was seen on camera he was very concealed, wearing black clothing and a yellow neck gaiter. He reportedly fled on foot westbound on Kittridge Street.
Parishioners were stunned.
Years ago, each squared tile, painted intricately, was sponsored by a St. Elisabeth parish family to raise money for the installation of the mural. Now the parish is asking for donations for its restoration.
The 35-year-old “La Virgen de Guadalupe” mural at St. Elisabeth’s Church is much more than a beautiful work of art. It is a highly revered image of the brown Mother Mary — “La Morena” — rooted in the merging of indigenous Mexican culture and the Catholic faith dating back to December 12, 1531.
Religious murals of “La Virgen” at parishes including the one at St. Elisabeth’s Church are shrines onto themselves, with an altar where people go to pray, leave flowers, light candles of devotion, give their personal intentions and to honor their loved ones.
St. Elisabeth’s Pastor, Rev. Vito Di Marzio, said he was sleeping at the church residence but was awakened by banging at the time of the incident which occurred at 1:40 a.m., on April 21.
“I woke up with the last four blows. I thought somebody was trying to break in,” he said.
But after peeking through the window and not seeing anything amiss, he went back to sleep.
It wasn’t until later that morning he discovered the damage and was shocked. He doesn’t know why anyone would cause this and views the act to be a sacrilege.
“In the Catholic faith, the Virgin Mary is special because she is the mother of Jesus, the mother of God,” Father Di Marzio said. He invited the church community that included students from their school and staff to pray at the site of the damaged mural located between the church and the rectory.
The sides of the mural were roped off with caution tape, but parishioners were still allowed to stand in front of it to offer their prayers.
The Angelus, a Catholic publication reported that two days after the incident, a prayer service was held for about 30 parishioners and livestreamed on St. Elisabeth’s Facebook page for others to join in singing and reciting the rosary.
Father Di Marzio asked them “to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary to help us and to touch the heart of the person who did this….It’s probably someone very angry about something,” the priest said.
“He did something that was wrong. He will repent.”
While news of the vandalism spread quickly through the local church community, information was released to media this week as police sought the public’s help with identifying the man responsible for damaging the religious mural.
Maria — who did not give her last name— said it was “very sad” to see the damage.
“The person who did it probably needs a lot of help. Hopefully he won’t do any more harm,” she said.
Marta Felix said she also forgives him, as long as the person who did it repents. “Sometimes the devil gets hold of people,” Felix said.
Religious artist Lalo Garcia who is a Guadalupano is known for his expertise on “La Virgen de Guadalupe” and has been commissioned by numerous churches to paint her image. He considered this incident to be “very sad.”
“I consider this act a hate crime of our faith and culture,” Garcia said.
The Mission Hills artist asked several questions that he didn’t have answers for.
“Why would you do something like this? Religious icons are symbols of healing and unity and then they’re attacked?” asked Garcia.
Garcia wondered what is the message being sent.
“How outraged do you have to be to attack the images that people utilize as a source for comfort? Her image is the center of motherhood and she is at the center of our culture,” said Garcia, who planned to offer his assistance to the church.
“As an artist it’s always painful to see your work damaged. But to know the artwork you created for the purpose of faith that people turn to for help, that it’s deliberately destroyed, there are no words,” he said.
Church officials said the hand painted ceramic tiles cannot be easily repaired and they’re currently consulting with an artist about how to proceed.
All of the tiles of the mural will have to come down, and it’s likely that a new mural will have to be created. Father Di Marzo doesn’t yet know what the installation of a new mural will cost.
Church officials plan on installing an enclosure that will be bulletproof once the mural is reinstalled.
This isn’t the first time the church has been vandalized. Father Di Marzio said several years ago, somebody broke some of the stained glass windows with rocks; they were replaced with bulletproof glass.
Police are asking for assistance from anyone with information about the April 21 incident. Contact the LAPD’s Van Nuys station at (818) 374-9500.
To donate to the restoration fund, visit stelisabethchurch.org