LAKEVILLE, Minnesota — Jason Parnell does not go anywhere without his medal featuring St. Michael the Archangel.
A U.S. marshal in Brunswick, Georgia, he believes in the protective powers of the patron saint of law enforcement officers, even though he is not Catholic.
“I am very religious,” said Parnell, who has been in law enforcement for 22 years. “I have a strong faith, and I think that God does provide us protection, whether it be his own hand or angels working in his stead. It’s all part of our faith.”
He first received a St. Michael medal in 2021, when Ruth Laursen of All Saints Parish in Lakeville stopped at his work. She was on vacation with her husband, Paul, and did what she always does when traveling — dropped off St. Michael medals to the local police department.
Parnell met Laursen outside his office and eagerly accepted a medal. That began a ritual of taking one wherever he goes.
Laursen has distributed more than 30,000 medals in more than 20 states, especially throughout the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. It’s all volunteer work, a labor of love and protection sparked by the 2016 shooting deaths of police officers in Dallas.
“I found a video of a woman that was at the rally (in Dallas), and she had gotten shot,” Laursen said. “She was with her son. She had snuck behind a car and she was hit. The officers, when they found out she was hit, came and laid on top of her and her son.”
“They were human shields protecting her from any other gunfire,” she said. “It just broke my heart what had happened.”
Her emotion stirred a reflection. “I felt that it was not just a physical battle that these police officers were in, but also a spiritual one. And, God just seemed to put on my heart that they needed some spiritual protection.”
Laursen points out that handing out the St. Michael medals is not meant to be seen as taking sides in the political debates that surround questions about policing. She said she has the best interests of all citizens in mind.
“The medals, in my opinion, are not just for (the protection of police officers),” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“They’re also to help the officer make the right choices when it comes to interaction with people — that it (the medal) would protect not only the officer, but the people that they are involved with,” she added.
Laursen discovered that St. Michael — whose feast day is Sept. 29, along with Archangels Gabriel and Raphael — is the patron saint of police officers.
That prompted her to begin giving St. Michael medals to officers. She bought 200 medals, asked for them to be blessed by Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and set out to distribute them. She named her effort the St. Michael Project.
The nickel-sized medals feature a stamped image of St. Michael on one side and a guardian angel on the other, purchased from St. Paul Street Evangelization, a nonprofit Catholic organization in Michigan.
Paul and Ruth then attach a cord to the medals so they can be worn, and place the finished medals in a small Ziploc bag. Each bag contains a sheet with the explanation of the medal on one side and the prayer to St. Michael on the other.
Ruth Laursen calls each blessed medal a “sacramental,” meaning it can help bring a “connection to God.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the use of blessed items such as these medals, called “sacramentals,” which are “sacred signs instituted by the church that can “sanctify different circumstances of life.”
Her first stop for the medal distribution was the Lakeville Police Department, the closest one to her house. With no advance notice, she walked through the doorway of the building July 11, 2016, and announced her plan to bring medals.
Cmdr. Jim Puncochar was summoned to meet her, and had “no idea” why she had come. “I’m like, ‘Is this a complaint? What’s going on?'” Puncochar recalled.
Laursen said she wanted to show support for police officers, and offered to bring St. Michael medals for all officers and staff in the department. The seemingly small gesture tapped into emotions he feels as both a police officer and a Catholic.
“I think every officer is driven in some way spiritually,” said Puncochar, who has been with the department for 28 years and attends Mass at several local parishes with his wife and three children.
“That’s how we do our job. We know that, at the end of the day, … we want to be safe, and we want to go home to our families,” he said. “And, that spiritual component guides us in how we conduct ourselves as officers.”
He thought handing out St. Michael medals was “a great idea,” but was unsure about how the department’s officers would feel about it.
Two weeks after the initial visit, Laursen showed up with 73 medals, which was enough to cover everyone in the department. She later added 27 more so there would be some extras on hand.
Puncochar made the medals available to anyone who wanted them. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Some officers he thought would decline a medal responded enthusiastically, saying, “I want that,” he recalled.
“Some people wear it, some people keep it in their locker, some people have it in their duty bag, some people put it in their pocket,” Puncochar added. “Everyone has a different means of transporting it, or a place for it or location for it.”
“I keep mine in my office. I’m kind of an office guy to begin with, and mine is hanging in my office every day,” he explained. “It’s just a reminder that a higher power guides us.”
Parnell said he thinks what Laursen is doing “is truly in the service of God” and called her and her husband “amazing people.”
Their show of support, he continued, is especially meaningful during a time when police officers across the country have been under intense scrutiny and criticism because of the actions of some, like former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a white police officer who was convicted of second- and third-degree murder in April 2021 for the death of George Floyd, an African American, in May 2020 during an arrest.
“There’s a lot of tension,” Parnell said. “It’s very disheartening. And something like what the St. Michael Project does helps to kind of lift us up a bit. … It means a lot. To me, it’s a very big deal, and it’s got to be a true calling by God for them to be so passionate and devoted to it, and (be) touching and reaching so many people.”
Hrbacek is a photographer/reporter at The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.