, Salem, MA

January 28, 2014

Man steals from pastor's wife who tried to help him


---- — SALEM — Mass was over Sunday when a man came to the side door of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church on Bridge Street.

He was standing in the church kitchen when he was spotted by Joy Morris, wife of the Rev. James Morris, who has been pastor of the small Ukrainian Rite Catholic church for more than 20 years.

“Do you have any food?” the man asked.

The church had held its annual parish dinner a week earlier, and there was no food left in the kitchen. Morris, 67, even opened an empty refrigerator to show the man.

“We really don’t have anything,” she said apologetically. She had only $5 in her purse but told him she thought the pastor could help and asked the man to wait a minute.

“Wait right here,” she said, according to police. “I’m going to go up and see my husband.”

Upstairs, she told her husband about the hungry man at the door. He reached for his wallet.

“I actually opened my wallet,” he said, “and I had a $20 bill. I said, ‘I’ll give him this.’”

The priest went downstairs with the $20 bill looking for the man, who was nowhere to be found. Morris looked in the church and even went up and down the street outside. But the man was gone.

That’s about when his wife noticed her purse was missing from the pew where she had left it next to her coat and a bag with a present for a grandchild. The black canvas handbag was gone along with a cellphone and wallet, which had a credit card, debit card, driver’s license, Dunkin’ Donuts gift card and a $5 bill.

“He had obviously followed her up the back stairs, saw the purse on a bench and snatched it,” Morris said.

Soon after the 12:48 p.m. incident, police issued a bulletin for a white man in his mid-30s, about 5 feet 9, with a medium build and dark beard. He was wearing a brown coat and brown pants.

As of yesterday, no arrests had been made.

Police see a lot of these petty crimes, but this one struck a nerve, an officer said.

“I take it personal,” said Patrolman Mike Levesque, who responded to the church Sunday and is investigating the case. “All the officers here take these type of things personally.”

It was a small crime in monetary terms but time-consuming for Joy Morris, a part-time guidance counselor at a Catholic grammar school. She was busy yesterday changing credit cards and securing a new driver’s license.

This is not the first time someone has come to the church door looking for a handout.

“Somebody will wander in from the streets,” the Rev. Morris said. “We try never to say no, yet at the same time, we know they’re giving us a story. ... I’m sure every church gets this sometimes.”

Although it has only a few members, the Ukrainian Catholic church is involved in a number of charitable activities. Currently, it is collecting food for the North Shore Moving Market, a food delivery program for home-bound and handicapped people.

“We try to contribute to different things around town,” Morris said.

Tom Dalton can be reached at