A weekday Mass at a California parish was interrupted as police pursued an alleged armed suspect who had fled into the church.
Stunned parishioners at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Placentia raised their hands above their heads as several law enforcement officers entered toward the end of a Jan. 16 morning liturgy.
Police had received a call around 8:20 a.m. of possible gunshots nearby, and a second call reporting a man with a gun in the area. Witnesses advised officers the man had been seen entering the church.
In a clip from the livestreamed Mass shared by local media, officers can be heard off-camera shouting, “Police, get on the ground” just as the celebrant was elevating the consecrated host and chalice before the recitation of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) in the Mass.
Some 10 members of the Placentia Police Department located the male suspect, whose identity is being withheld by police, “in one of the rear pews,” Sgt. Joe Connell told OSV News.
The suspect was “handcuffed (and) immediately taken out of the church,” which was then evacuated to ensure there were no additional suspects or weapons, he said.
Staff and students at nearby schools, including the parish school, were told to shelter in place, with Connell calling the cluster of potential targets a “trifecta.”
“We have St. Joseph’s (church) there, just north of that we have a Presbyterian church, we have St. Joseph’s Catholic school on the footprint of the church property, and directly across the street we have a public high school,” said Connell.
He said no gun was found on the suspect, who has been released without charge as the search for a gun and ballistic evidence continued.
About 50 attendees, most of them elderly, were on hand for the Mass, said Connell, noting that “the majority of the congregation was actually sitting up towards the front.”
Connell said he and his team were “very sensitive to … what was going on at the time” of the takedown and evacuation.
Worshippers “remained very calm,” he said. “There was nobody screaming out. I mean, there were a couple who said, ‘But we’re about to receive holy Communion’ and … the timing probably couldn’t have been any worse.”
During a security sweep that lasted about 20 minutes, several attendees prayed the rosary outside until they were permitted to return to the church to conclude the liturgy.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page, the parish said they had come back to finish the Mass “around 9:30 a.m.” and by approximately 10:45 a.m. “everything (was) back to normal.”
Connell also noted that “it was not a SWAT team” that responded to the call, as some early media reports had indicated, but was rather a group of “patrol officers, detectives and sergeants,” some of whom had worn ballistics helmets that are “issued to every sworn officer in our department.”
The full livestream of the Jan. 16 Mass was not available on the parish’s social media platforms. Connell said police had not issued any instructions to remove the video.
OSV News was told by a St. Joseph Parish staff member that pastor Father Carlos Luy was out of town and not available for comment. A message left with Deacon Nick Sherg, the parish business manager, was not immediately returned.