Many make up for theft of gifts

SHREWSBURY — Shreds of gift wrap and tissue paper, in seasonal red and white, still lay crumpled and strewn on the shed floor Wednesday morning, a reminder of the heartless act that took place on the grounds of St. Anne’s Catholic Church.

A storage shed containing hundreds of Christmas gifts, collected over the course of the year for the neediest children, was ransacked between Monday night and Tuesday afternoon, the thief clearing shelves of all but a plush toy and a basketball.

For more than 300 families in need, the gifts — toys, video games, gift cards, food vouchers — would have been the only presents under the tree. But from a dastardly act flowed a groundswell of donations from incensed residents, businesses, and even people outside of Massachusetts.


By Wednesday, church volunteers were inundated with hundreds of phone calls pledging donations, and with visitors bearing gifts, checks, cash, and offers of help, said Elaine ­LeBlanc, volunteer director for the church’s human services program.

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“The goodness of people is unbelievable,” she said. “I can’t say enough. I’m overwhelmed.”

Among the first to make it to the parish early Wednesday morning was an elderly woman carrying a couple of teddy bears in plastic bags.

“She just walked up, didn’t give us her name or anything, and she just handed them to me and said, ‘I hope you can use these,’ ” LeBlanc said. “People pull together because it’s in the spirit of Christmas.”

Kerry Barbour, coordinator of the giving tree campaign, discovered the theft shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday as she entered the shed to store more presents.


“My heart was ripped out. I was devastated,” Barbour said, choking up as she stared at the empty plastic shelves inside the shed Wednesday morning. “I can’t believe somebody could do this. . . . To take little kids’ Christmas, and just take it right away, it’s unbelievable.”

Shrewsbury police lifted fingerprints and secured the inside of the shed door with a bar. The church estimated the gifts were worth thousands of dollars.

St. Anne’s parishioner Mary Ann Preskul-Ricca was in disbelief when she heard the news, realizing that all the work involved with getting the presents, and personalizing them for each child, was gone the instant someone kicked in that shed door and stole the gifts.

“How could somebody take away those gifts people donated?” said Preskul-Ricca, who donated several Target gift cards to the church Wednesday. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do something,’ because a lot of people are going to be disappointed.”

Eleven employees of a nearby funeral home in Worcester pooled money for the affected families, said Kevin ­Mercadante, president of his family’s funeral home.


“To do what somebody did down there, knowing that those presents were for people in need, is just deplorable. It’s just sick,” Mercadante said. “But it’s heartwarming to see the community get together to help somebody. It makes you feel good.”

Pamela Panarelli stopped by the church Wednesday, carrying a 2-foot tall holiday gift bag for a 10-year-old boy, whose wish list she had picked from the church’s “giving tree” before the theft. The boy asked for a bike, a trumpet, and warm winter clothes and shoes. Panarelli, a member of St. Anne’s, said many of the children whose presents were stolen had similar lists — a toy or bauble among a list of necessities.

“It’s not all about the toys. These children are asking for boots and warm clothing. That to me is heartbreaking,” Panarelli said. “I feel sorry for the person that did it. . . . It’s very heartless, self-centered, not Robin Hood doing something for another needy family.”

Before the theft, Panarelli had tapped a friend who works at Hasbro, the Pawtucket, R.I., toy company, to donate. When they met up Tuesday evening, Panarelli broke the news.

“I said, ‘Actually, I need about $10,000 worth of stuff,’ ” she said, adding that she e-mailed her friend a news story, which he then forwarded to a vice president at the company.

Within an hour, the company’s community development director informed church staff that Hasbro would replace all the toys for the 300 children.

“For that to be taken away from them completely and entirely during the holidays, we’re just glad we could do something,” said Hasbro spokesman Brandon Keough, adding the toys will be delivered Monday afternoon.

Barbour said this was the first theft in the campaign’s history. The toys were scheduled to be distributed Dec. 13 and 14.

LeBlanc, the church’s volunteer director, said she is confident that each of the more than 300 families will receive presents by then, because of the generosity of strangers.

“It will be a little harder, but it’ll be done,” LeBlanc said. “And we will end the holiday season in a happy note and all the kids will be taken care of.”