WOONSOCKET – On the run from the police, a stolen SUV slammed into the granite entryway of St. Charles Barromeo Church Wednesday, causing a staggering amount of damage.
“It’s really shocking,” said Rev. Gerald L. Finnegan, the pastor. “I thought the building was impregnable. It’s stone. Granite. I thought it would last forever.”
Police arrested 18-year-old Jalen Asean Abney on one count of possession of a stolen motor vehicle. He was captured after a foot chase that began following the crash, but two others escaped, including one individual Abney claims was driving.
Patrolman Patrick McGourty said the episode began at 1:44 a.m., when he saw an SUV without a front plate traveling on Gaskill Street at a high rate of speed.
As the SUV snaked through the North End, McGourty caught little more than a glimpse of the vehicle until it reached North Main Street, just south of Winter Street.
The operator had already lost control of the vehicle, according to McGourty. The vehicle was stationary, on the sidewalk closest to the oncoming lane of traffic as it headed south toward downtown. The vehicle was at an angle perpendicular to the travel lane.
McGourty activated his overheads and drove toward the SUV. When he got close to the vehicle, however, the SUV began moving again and raced off.
McGourty radioed to headquarters that he didn’t feel comfortable engaging the SUV in a motor vehicle pursuit, given the rain-slicked condition of the road. As he followed at around 45 mph, the SUV pulled away at speeds the officer estimated to be in excess of 75 mph.
Near West School Street, McGourty said, he saw the vehicle begin fishtailing out of control. When he got closer, he saw a “large cloud of dust” near the Woonsocket Fire Department’s Station 3, which closely abuts St. Charles Church.
The SUV had slammed into the side entrance to the church and another vehicle, heavily damaging both.
McGourty thought he saw two people running from the vehicle, at which point he began chasing them. A few minutes later, another group of police officers corralled Abney near Blackstone and Arnold streets, a couple of blocks from the church.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Abney allegedly told the officers. “I was in that vehicle, but I wasn’t driving.”
Police reports say Abney told them there were actually two other people who fled the crash. Abney was complaining of pain in his neck and shoulders when police caught up with him. He also had some minor lacerations.
He was taken to Landmark Medical Center for treatment before he was booked at headquarters. Court records say Abney has two unrelated cases pending, both stemming from charges lodged against him this year. They include domestic rape and domestic felony assault by strangulation, filed by the Woonsocket police, and a misdemeanor larceny originating in Providence.
Police said the vehicle that crashed into the church was an Oldsmobile Bravada, a full-size SUV which had been reported stolen in the city on Nov. 15. The rear plate matched another vehicle registered in Massachusetts.
On Wednesday morning, the side entrance to the church looked like it had been hit by a rocket mortar. The large granite masonry affixed to the frame of the ornate side entryway had been knocked off in jagged, irregular pieces. The fiberglass bumper of a vehicle was strewn in a pile of rock rubble that lay at the foot of the entryway. The whole mess was cordoned off by yellow police tape.
“I would say half of the entrance is gone,” said Father Finnegan. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Father Finnegan said he has no idea how much repairs will cost, but he thinks the parish’s insurance will cover it.
A restoration masonry company that’s done work on the church before is scheduled to assess the damage on Monday and come up with a repair estimate, according to Father Finnegan.
The crash is the latest scrape of bad luck for the historic church, which was built in 1868 by Irish immigrants. In February 2012, thieves stripped the original brass handrails, worth thousands of dollars, from the front stairwells. Two men were caught and are serving prison time, according to Finnegan.
A car crash damaged the front of the church near Daniels Street previously as well, according to Father Finnegan. Part of the problem, he says, is that the church is so close to the roadway.
“I don’t know that it’s preventable,” he said.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo