By Matt Hadro
A violent attack at “Mary’s Shrine” in Washington D.C. on Tuesday shook the community and prompted prayer and solidarity among staff and regular attendees.
“It was evil, it was tragic—it could have been worse,” Monsignor Vito Buonanno, associate rector and director of pilgrimages of the Shrine, told CNA.
“It’s happened before in other places—people have entered houses of worship and killed people there. That’s the only reason why, I think, we all say we’re grateful to God, it could have been worse,” Buonanno said.
On Tuesday morning at 9:14 a.m., the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department responded to a 911 call at the basilica, where a suspect had struck a female security guard with his vehicle.
The basilica’s rector, Monsignor Walter Rossi, spoke at a press conference inside the basilica’s upper church on Tuesday afternoon. He said the assailant pinned the female security guard between his vehicle and other vehicles at the basilica’s east parking lot. The attacker allegedly tried to run the female staff member over.
A male security guard confronted the attacker in an attempt to help his coworker, and was pursued by the attacker into the basilica. The guard was stabbed multiple times by the attacker, according to Rossi and Jacquelyn Hayes, director of communications for the shrine.
The assailant then fled the scene.
“I had seen them just minutes before, when I came in to work—I see them every day. Every day,” Buonanno told CNA of his regular interactions with the security guards.
“We wished each other a good day, and who would ever think, I didn’t even get back into my—I didn’t get into my office to take my coat off when this occurred.”
After the attacks, Rossi prayed with the victims before they were transported to the hospital, Hayes said. Buonanno joined him.
The startling violence at “Mary’s Shrine,” descending like a lightning bolt on a place of peace, shook the community.
“I can tell you I’ve been here for 13 years, and nothing like this has ever happened,” Hayes said.
Paul Rybczyk, a graduate of neighboring Catholic University of America, arrived at the basilica later in the morning after the stabbing. He told CNA he has been attending Mass at the Shrine for 50 years.
“It’s something that’s really close to me,” he said. Tuesday’s attacks were “terrible.”
“Both security staff members are extremely dedicated to us. They are quite personable to our staff and guests alike, and this incident had been quite upsetting for everyone here at the National Shrine,” Rossi said.
“This Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a place of prayer, peace, worship, and pilgrimage.”
Late on Tuesday morning, the Shrine’s staff gathered to pray.
“He [Rossi] not only prayed for our security guards who were victims, but he also prayed for the perpetrator,” Hayes said. “That is who we are here at the Basilica.”
Morning events at the Shrine were curtailed because of the crime scene, but noon Mass occurred as usual, albeit in the Blessed Sacrament chapel on the upper level, not in the crypt church as originally scheduled. Dozens were in attendance as Monsignor Buonanno celebrated Mass.
“We had a number of people who came up to me personally today and who expressed their grief, but their gratitude for the Basilica being here, and they indicated that they were in solidarity and prayer with us,” Hayes said.
Buonanno preached in his homily what he later repeated to CNA—that the Shrine is a “holy place that we know is Mary’s house.”
“We are very close here at the shrine. It’s more than just staff. There truly is a sense of family, and when something like this happens, all of us—the whole staff—reacted, so upset,” he told CNA.
After the stabbing, the attacker fled the basilica in a Lincoln Navigator and later barricaded himself in a house in the nearby neighborhood of Brightwood, during an ensuing standoff with police.
A suspect was apprehended by police after the standoff ended, and had lacerations to the stomach area from before his capture. He was familiar with at least one of the two victims, Hayes said in a written statement on Tuesday morning.
The suspect lived at the house with family members, said Jeffery Carroll, assistant chief of police with the D.C. Metropolitan Police’s homeland security bureau, in a press conference on Tuesday morning.
The stabbing was believed to be a “domestic” attack and not a targeting of the shrine itself, D.C. Metropolitan Police said on Tuesday.
“We believe there is some sort of a domestic relationship between the female victim and the suspect here,” Carroll said.
Monsignor Rossi went to the hospital to visit the two victims and speak with their doctors, but would not disclose their condition out of privacy concerns. Hayes said that she understood the victims are “stable.”
The shrine’s security personnel are not armed, Monsignor Rossi said, although “we are in the process of looking at that policy.” The shrine was already reviewing its security operation before the time of the attack, he said.
“We do have D.C. Police with us for special events, and on the weekends, and we are looking at our entire security operations even as we speak—before this even happened. This is unfortunate timing,” Rossi said.
Hayes later said that the shrine is currently “on a heightened security alert,” and although it has 50 security guards, “in today’s day and age, we are looking at enhancing our current security protocols.”
“A member of our family has been struck. So that’s difficult, but we are in solidarity,” she said.
In January of 2019, a group of demonstrators at a rally led by Nathan Phillips attempted to enter the Shrine to disrupt a Saturday evening Mass on the weekend of the March for Life, but the group was halted by security personnel.