The nun was in a panic when Aliquippa police officers came to take her report of a mugging. The missing cash meant nothing -- the 78-year-old had her wallet snatched years earlier on a mission in Brazil. This time the thief had made off with the Holy Eucharist.
It took police just two hours to track down the robber and a few more for the security chief at the Beaver County Jail, who happened to be Catholic, to deliver a spiritual guilt trip powerful enough to bring the inmate to tears.
Chief George David asked Toby Duran if he was Catholic. The suspect said "yes."
Did he know he'd robbed a nun who just returned from delivering communion to the sick and convalescent?
Mr. Duran did not.
Did he know that Catholics believe the wafers do not represent God, but are thought to be the actual embodiment of Jesus Christ?
"He [Jesus] is out there in the dark, in the cold, in the mud," Chief David said.
Mr. Duran, a 37-year-old transient who had been squatting in a trailer down the street from the St. Titus convent, immediately told the jail official where to find the nun's handbag.
He pleaded no contest yesterday to robbery for the April 4 purse snatching. The assistant district attorney dropped simple assault and harassment charges.
Senior Beaver County Judge Robert C. Reed sentenced him to six months -- effectively one additional month -- in prison to be followed by six months' probation. He also ordered Mr. Duran to pay $50 in restitution, even though Sister Mary Morgan told the district attorney she did not want the money back.
"I don't think this was premeditated. He did it out of extreme necessity," she said yesterday.
The nun and robber met innocently on the street in the early evening when she pulled her car into the convent and began closing the garage. She never wears a traditional habit and the cross around her neck might have been obscured by her jacket, she said.
After they spoke for about five minutes, Mr. Duran asked to borrow $10 for gasoline and she gave it to him. He asked if she could spare more.
"I said, 'I do think that's enough for you,' " Sister Mary said. He promised to return the money as soon as possible.
When she turned away, he grabbed her purse, catching her off guard.
"He pulled and I pulled. I'm very stubborn. I would not have let go," said Sister Mary, who is parish social minister at St. Catherine of Sweden in the North Hills and belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Sister Mary landed face first on the pavement and he took off running. She realized she had two communion wafers remaining in the pyx, a hinged container for the host, which she had placed in her purse.
"It was the first thing I told the police," she said.
With Mr. Duran's help, police located the missing purse, with the pyx intact, under siding outside the trailer. Sister Mary later visited the "broken down contraption" the man, his wife and their infant called home.
When Mr. Duran shuffled into court yesterday in shackles and a green-and-white striped uniform, he nodded at the nun and she smiled at him.
"To Toby's credit, he really jeopardized the case by admitting where the purse was. I could tell he was repentant," she said. "I'm going to ask permission to visit him."
Gabrielle Banks can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1370.