[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] A man who threatened to shoot a priest and hold a congregation hostage was thwarted on Sunday by police who were lying in wait at the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach, Florida.
The attacker, 33-year-old Jorge Arizamendoza, was known to the congregation and leaders of the St Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church, which is based at the monastery, because he has previously received assistance from the church’s homeless ministry.
The monastery dates back to AD 1133 when construction began in Sacramenia, near Segovia in northern Spain. In the 1920s it was dismantled, brick-by-brick and transported to the United States where it eventually ended up as an Episcopal church in North Miami Beach.
Police were lying in wait for Arizamendoza at the church on Sunday following a number of incidents during the week. In one, he caused damage estimated at $2,000 USD (approximately £1,360 GBP) when he threw a stone at an electronic sign. He returned the following day and smashed a video camera before decapitating an 800-year-old stone statue of Alphonsus VII, one of the artefacts from the original Spanish monastery that was shipped to the US.
Police say that Arizamendoza forced his way into the church during Sunday’s Eucharist and threatened to shoot the priest in the face. He shouted at the congregation warning them not to attend Mass at the church.
“The defendant stated that if he would have had it his way and the officers were not there working the detail, that he was going to lock up the place, take everyone hostage and kill everyone inside,” a police detective told a court during a bail hearing yesterday (Monday).
Arizamendoza faces charges of disturbing a religious assembly, aggravated assault at a religious institution, criminal mischief at a place of worship and burglary. It is understood that he was not armed.
He stormed into the church just as the congregation were praying for the victims of the Orlando shooting. “The fact that this man came in right on the heels of Orlando was scary,” the Rector of St Bernard de Clairvaux, the Revd Gregory Mansfield, told the Miami Herald.
“He asked who the priest was and I stood up. I tried to keep him talking. People come to a house of worship as a sanctuary. No one expects this to happen,” he said.
The situation ended swiftly when police at the scene arrested Arizamendoza.
The Bishop of Southeast Florida, the Rt Revd Peter Eaton, visited the church soon after the incident. “Anytime that there is an incident like this we are all very concerned. Churches are places where people need to be safe,” he told the Herald.
A congregation member, Annetta Gordon, told Local 10 News, an ABC affiliate, that the congregation panicked as the situation unfolded. “There was a woman in an electric wheelchair who was trying to get out, and they were jumping over her,” she said.
The monastery dates back to AD 1133 when construction began in Sacramenia, near Segovia in northern Spain. Eight years later, the Monastery of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels was opened, changing its name in 1174 following the canonization of Bernard of Clairvaux. It remained a monastery for almost 700 years before closing in the 1830s. Upon its closure, the cloisters were sold and converted into a granary and stable.
A US businessman, William Randolph Hearst, purchased the cloisters and outbuildings in 1925. He took it apart, stone-by-stone, and the carefully numbered stones were placed in more than 11,000 wooden crates, protected by hay, and transported to New York.
But a Foot and Mouth outbreak meant that upon arrival in the States the stones were removed from the crates, which were burnt along with the hay. The stones were sold at auction but remained in storage for 26 years. In 1952 two entrepreneurs purchased the stones for use as a tourist attraction – it took them 19 months to reconstruct the monastery in what Time magazine called “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history.”
Eleven years later, an Episcopalian benefactor, Colonel Robert Pentland Junior, purchased the Cloisters and presented them to the Bishop of Florida. It became the home of a church which was given the same dedication as the monastery: Saint Bernard de Clairvaux.
One of the oldest buildings in the United States, the church has been used as the backdrop for a number of Hollywood movies, including Ace Ventura and Rock of Ages.