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Arson destroys Bonners Ferry Catholic church

BONNERS FERRY – The people of St. Ann’s Catholic parish came together Thursday to console and hug each other, and pray, as acrid smoke poured from the ruins of their church, leveled by an arsonist who struck in the middle of the night.

With tears in his eyes, the Rev. Carlos Perez said he hopes his parish, with 153 active families, will be able to rebuild, but it will be a big challenge. It’s a generous community but also poor, Perez said.

“Everyone pray for me and the community,” the priest said. “We will put everything in God’s hands. He takes care of us.”

David Wenk, a member of the parish, said, “It’s just a building, but it’s a sacred place. A lot of memories in there: kids being confirmed, a lot of weddings, a lot of funerals, first communions. It hurts to see it go.”

The parish planned a special Mass for Thursday evening at the United Methodist Church down the street.

Bonners Ferry police had not named a suspect by Thursday evening, but they did identify a person of interest – a man arrested on unrelated charges Thursday morning. Police Chief Vic Watson declined to detail what led to the person’s arrest.

Investigators believe the arson may be related to vandalism at St. Ann’s and at least one other Bonners Ferry church earlier this year, Watson said.

Thursday’s fire was set in three places in the church’s basement, which also had been vandalized in a fashion similar to vandalism there in February, he said.

Watson estimated the loss at over $1 million.

“This is a terrible crime,” he said. “A church really grounds people to their community, it grounds people to their religion. We hope they keep their faith strong.”

Choir practice and a religious education class with about 30 students had been held in the church basement Wednesday night.

Just after 1 a.m. Thursday, Perez and several neighbors heard a blast, then saw flames and smoke. The church, at 6712 El Paso St., was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived minutes later.

Crews fought the blaze into the afternoon and tore down the south wall and roof of the church to reach hot spots. The building collapsed about 12:15 p.m.

A Sacred Heart of Jesus statue in an alcove in the basement was broken before the fire was set, Perez said. He added he was saddened about losing the Blessed Sacrament, or tabernacle, and the ceremonial garments he dons for Mass.

The parish had spent $300,000 on church renovations in recent years and had just finished remodeling the basement where the fire was set. A new roof was put on the 1960s-era church 10 years ago, and church leaders recently had decided to buy a security system but hadn’t yet installed the cameras.

“We’re scared that the diocese may want us just to go to Sandpoint and not rebuild a church here,” Wenk said. “That’s our biggest concern.”

Bishop Peter F. Christensen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise said in a written statement Thursday, “We have been heartened by the prayers and support of the community and of Catholics and others around the the state reaching out to the people of St. Ann’s in this hour of need. Catholics have worshiped at St. Ann’s for more than 120 years. We are cooperating with authorities regarding the cause of the blaze. Join me in praying for the people of St. Ann’s and all those affected by this fire.”

Perez, a native of Colombia who has led the church for over eight years, said he heard an explosion about 1 a.m. Watson said the explosion could have been smoke fumes that ignited. Perez said he looked out at the church from the rectory where he lives and saw flames through the stained glass windows.

Across the street, Ginny Kirsch also heard the noise and looked out her bedroom window.

“I saw the stained glass windows just lit up brightly with a flame inside,” Kirsch said. “It happened so fast and was so intense. … I can’t imagine why. Such a beautiful church, too.”

The fire is under investigation by the Idaho Fire Marshal’s Office, the Bonners Ferry Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

There’s not enough evidence to call it a hate crime, but that will be part of the investigation, Watson said.

Mick Mellett, the director of Bonners Ferry Funeral Home and a local firefighter, was called to the church about 1:15 a.m. He has attended the church since 1978.

“It’s devastating that the church has burned,” he said. “It’s a total loss.”

Tom Bondy, a parishioner, said he wants to see the church rebuilt.

“It’s just incredibly sad that someone would come in and do this,” he said. “Just senseless stupidity.”

The arson happened less than two months after St. Ann’s and Trinity Lutheran Church were vandalized.

On Feb. 23, a vandal inside St. Ann’s threw butter on the ceiling of the altar and scrawled satanic symbols in ash on the walls. Candles were defaced and hot wax dripped onto floors, and the cross on the tabernacle was stolen. Parishioners were heartbroken to see that the vandal had scratched out the eyes on a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Pastor Andy Hinderlie of Trinity Lutheran said he found a Christmas tree that had been cut to resemble a cross and turned upside down on Feb. 23. A framed picture of Jesus was broken and his face was gouged. A cross on a baptismal font was broken off. A calligraphy sign quoting a Bible verse was sliced.

“Almost all the crosses that could be were turned upside down,” Hinderlie said. “What we felt was more concern for the person who did it.”

Hinderlie said his church has offered to let St. Ann’s use its facilities while it rebuilds and that an association of local churches was working to provide assistance to the Catholic Church.

Staff writer Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.

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