By LOU PONSI     7/20/2023

During a men’s retreat held over Father’s Day weekend, a 14-foot wooden cross was set into the ground and dedicated at Santiago Retreat Center.

Situated in Silverado Canyon, the 500-acre center serves Catholic communities throughout the region.

The weekend proved to be a special and blessed time for retreat guests. But not two weeks later, on June 29, the retreat center staff made a shocking discovery.

The cross had been cut down and sawed into pieces.

Perhaps, it was a terrible prank? A senseless act of vandalism?



Whatever the intention, it was a desecration of a sacred symbol for Roman Catholics and the Christian faith as a whole.

Shortly after the discovery, Mark McElrath, executive director of the center, called Fr. Domenico Di Raimondo, former director of the nearby House of Prayer, a retreat center for priests.

Fr. Domenico had celebrated Mass during that Father’s Day retreat.

The longtime priest offered a spiritual perspective of what had occurred.

“He called me back and left a really sweet message that just said, ‘You know Mark, the cross is a symbol of violence in itself, and out of that violence, Jesus brought all people to God. So, let’s expect that there’s going to be some good fruit from this terrible thing,’” McElrath said. “And that really helped get my head on right as far as how to contextualize what had taken place.”

Fr. Domenico was correct.

A GoFundMe page set up to cover the costs to repair and reinstall the cross has collected $8,770 as of Friday, July 14. The remaining funds will be used for camp scholarships, McElrath said.

“More than the amount of money, it’s the large number of people who took the time to make any kind of contribution,” the executive director said. “We got tons of comments on GoFundMe, several emails from friends of the retreat center and people who were sending checks outside of GoFundMe. So regardless of what the actual motivation of the person who did it, or whatever it was, it’s been the response from people who have been touched by this act of violence, and their response is one of self-giving love.”

Investigators with the Orange County Sheriff ’s Department believe the vandalism likely occurred sometime between 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 28 and 6 a.m. on Thursday, June 29.

“No update at this point,” McElrath said. “No new information. It’s still under investigation. The initial response from the sheriffs was timely, professional and very courteous.”

During the schoolyear, the Santiago Retreat Center hosts weekend retreats for parishes, which are primarily confirmation retreats, he said.

The center hosts several camps during the summer months, including Bible camps, youth camps and family camps.

Fr. Glenn Baaten, the chaplain of the Santiago Retreat Center, blessed the site of the vandalism with holy water, and recited Latin prayers from the traditional “Roman Ritual” and “Book of Blessings.”

Fr. Baaten, who has a background in construction, said the cross could be reconstrued, and doing so “might send a really beautiful signal about how the cross of our dear Lord is immortal on some level.”

He acknowledged the presence of individuals and groups that are “vociferous” in their disapproval of not only the Catholic faith, but of all faiths.

“Society-wise, we tend to be, and we try to be good citizens,” Fr. Baaten said.“We’re not silent about our faith, but here’s an opportunity for an outpouring of support for faith communities in our area, and I think certainly in the state as well. And that’s very encouraging.”

To learn more about the Santiago Retreat Center and its programs, visit https://www.santiagoretreatcenter.org/