PHILADELPHIA — In the darkness of an early morning this week, thieves bent a metal grate shielding a basement window, slipping into the Kensington Catholic school through basement bathrooms. A U-Haul truck waited outside.
Over four hours early Tuesday, the thieves ripped out copper and metal pipes and even urinals and sinks, breaking the main water line, flooding Visitation BVM School and rendering the heating system for both church and school unusable. Classrooms were ransacked and computers stolen. A new boiler that was being installed was damaged; equipment and food stored in the basement ruined.
Visitation has been closed since Tuesday, when Principal Ed Coleman walked in to discover five feet of water and evidence everywhere of the break-in. The financial extent of the damage is not yet clear, but it’s likely at least in the tens of thousands of dollars, school officials say.
But beyond the physical damage, the robbery took more from Visitation, which sits in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, a section hit hard by the opioid epidemic and by gun violence. The school, church, and social services it offers mean much to the surrounding Latino and Vietnamese communities.
“This is the community’s safe space, and it got invaded,” said the Rev. Francis Mulvaney, Visitation’s pastor.
Visitation educates nearly 400 students, most of whom attend on scholarship. The school’s fund-raising efforts have been “hit hard” by the pandemic, board member Boyd Kelly said. “We’re trying to find ways to raise money, and this is just another thing.”
The school’s tagline is “A beacon of hope for our community,” and people take that seriously, said Erin Cortez, the parent of three current Visitation students.
“I drop my children off at school and go to work knowing they’re safe,” said Cortez. “Now, if this can happen, what else can happen? It’s so scary.”
While the neighborhood has long been plagued by crime, the church and school have largely been spared. But recently, more cars have been broken into during Mass, with car parts ripped out. Mulvaney was recently assaulted when he intervened in an attack near the school, punched on a weekday on a busy street.
“This has always been something that could happen, but now, it’s here,” said Coleman. “I don’t understand how someone could do this to a school and affect the children that are coming here.”