Staff at one of Vancouver's oldest Catholic churches said on Thursday thatthe cathedral is under siege by panhandlers, following what police called a "cowardly" attack on a 79-year-old man the day before.

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A man threw a 79-year-old man to the floor, took money from his wallet and fled the Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday. ((CBC))

Staff told CBC News there is an incident at least once a day, and police are called to the Holy Rosary Cathedral, on Richards Street in downtown Vancouver, on a weekly basis.

Vancouver police said a panhandler robbed and assaulted the 79-year-old man inside the church on Wednesday.

"As he comes out, the senior is giving $5 to the panhandler," said Const. Howard Chow.

"The panhandler is not happy with that and that's when he grabs the senior's wallet, throws him on the ground and goes to get the wallet. He takes some quantity of money out of it and takes off," Chow said.

"It's a particularly cowardly act. It's not only on a senior citizen; it's on a senior citizen who's already offered to give him some money."

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The Holy Rosary Cathedral is one of Vancouver's oldest Catholic churches. ((CBC))

Father Glenn Dion said the incident was terrible, but not surprising.

"We have people coming in here and they're in another world and they're either doped up or drunk up or else they're in some psychological impairment."

Dion said the situation is so bad that women who go to the church are in the habit of holding onto their purses tightly during mass.

Victor Stanisnewski, a maintenance man in the church, said he knows the panhandler who is the suspect in Wednesday's assault.

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Victor Stanisnewski, a maintenance man at the church, said the panhandler suspected in Wednesday's assault has harassed older people in the past. ((Jeremy Nuttall/CBC))

"He's been quite a bit of problem," Stanisnewski said. "He went usually inside the church and was usually harassing, especially older people. He's been very aggressive."

When it comes to other panhandlers outside the church, Dion said there really isn't a solution and parishioners will just have to be vigilant.

As of Thursday night, the suspect in the muggingis still at large.

Police described the suspect as a white male, about 40 to 45 years old, with a receding hairline, a beard and a moustache.