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Vandals desecrate island church

Photo: Shattered stained glass windows of Christ by the Sea Church, now temporarily covered by shutters.

In the worst outbreak of vandalism to strike the barrier island in recent memory, Christ by the Sea Methodist Church was struck by persons unknown in three separate attacks during Holy Week. Large rocks were hurled through the stained-glass windows in the front of the house of worship on A1A, causing more than $10,000 in damage.

The initial act of vandalism occurred sometime between April 7 and April 9, when the damage was first reported, according to Vero Beach Police Lt. John Pedersen. More windows were smashed on April 10, and again on either the 11th or 12th.

While Pedersen said a criminal mischief investigation was now underway, police provided no immediate information on whether they had any suspects, a motive, or whether any protection had been provided to the church before the second and third attacks.

"It is disconcerting when an incident like this happens," Pedersen said, "let alone, to a church."

First word of the vandalism came on Holy Wednesday, April 12, when Pastor Rev. Cliff  Melvin posted on the church's Facebook page: "Feeling sad at Christ by the Sea. Holy Week just got a little more difficult. Third act of vandalism in four days. This time six rocks through the beautiful, large stained glass windows in the front of the sanctuary."

With the broken windows shuttered, the congregation celebrated Easter Sunday in relative gloom, without the sunlight that normally streams through the hand-blown, jewel-colored glass. An individual who was present at the service said shock and sadness prevailed among the 335-member congregation as word spread about what had happened. No one appeared to have any idea of who might have done such a thing – or why.

During the service, Melvin spoke about the vandalism, and included the perpetrators in his public prayers.

The windows were designed and created in the 1990s by world-renowned stained-glass artist, sculptor and painter, the late Conrad Pickel, in his Vero Beach Studio. Pickel's son, Paul, grew up watching his father create glass masterpieces for clients all over the United States, including several in Vero Beach, and now carries on his father's work.

Pickel was contacted by the church after the vandalism.  Windows in the nave, one on one side of the sanctuary, and the 8-by-10-foot sections in church’s boat-bow-like front facing A1A sustained damage, he said.

Pickel removed the damaged windows and transported them to his studio where the long, costly process of restoration will begin as soon as the church's insurance company signs off.

"It is heartbreaking," he said, going on to explain that the shattered glass was hand-blown in Germany and France. Each piece must be cut, colored and fired. Then the sections are painstakingly leaded and assembled, and finally installed. Pickel said fabricating all the church’s windows back in the 1990s probably took at least six months.

If the windows were made today, Pickel estimated they would cost in excess of $150,000. He said repairing the damaged windows will likely run between $10,000 and $12,000.

Melvin was thought to be out of town on the day after Easter and was not answering phone calls. Other members of the church staff and leadership declined to comment, saying the pastor should be the one to speak for the church.

Anyone with information is urged to call the Vero Beach Police Department.