Fire Set In St. Thomas More Cathedral Spurs Arson Investigation

Jun 6, 2019

State officials are investigating a fire set to the Celebrant's chair, bishop's chair and two other seats behind the altar at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More as arson.
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM

State and federal authorities are investigating an apparent arson at the Catholic church Co-Cathedral of Saint Thomas More. Despite damage from the fire, the church is still planning to hold Mass this weekend.

Whoever set fire in the cathedral did so intentionally, according to the State Fire Marshal’s office. They did so Wednesday afternoon, while there was still daylight. But there are no suspects identified yet. Father Tim Holeda, arrived at the cathedral shortly after receiving text messages about the fire. He recounts how he felt seeing the damage.

“Sadness, a little anger, you know, but kind of sadness,” Holeda said Thursday. “This is a special church for me. I went to college here, this is my first Catholic church I ever walked inside.”

Fire was set to the celebrant chairs where the presiding priest sits during mass, and the chair where the diocese’s Bishop sits when he visits. Two other chairs behind the altar were also scorched. The chairs’ charred remains are still there – but Holeda says there’s a silver lining in what didn’t get damaged.

The bishop's seal, which is on the cathedral wall behind the bishop's chair, was burned in an apparent arson Wednesday afternoon.
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM

“The tabernacle, obviously very special, the statues are untouched, the altar is fine. It’s basically just the chairs, those are  very easy to replace – and that back wall, which frankly was a little dated,” Holeda said.

There is one peculiar detail in the arson case: Whoever set the fire also lit the Pascal candle, which stands next to the altar and is meant to be lit during the Easter season.

“The Pascal candle is something that comes out at the Easter vigil. And the church is dark, and its completely, there are no lights lit. We have a fire outside, and that candle is lit from the fire,” Holeda said. “The fire is blessed, then we light that candle and bring it in.”

Parishioners then light individual candles from the Pascal candle’s flame. The Pascal candle is meant to symbolize Jesus Christ’s presence, Holeda says.

“There’s a symbolism there. I think it’s a little odd. When someone does something like this, if they’re totally rational and sane, you’d think they would probably be nervous, and it’s broad daylight – someone could walk in at any moment,” Holeda said.

Holeda says while surveying the damage, he came to a realization.

The Pascal candle, which is meant to be lit during the Easter season, was lit by an arsonist who set fire to several chairs behind the altar at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More Wednesday.
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM

“However this was caused, this is sort of the norm for some Christians in other places in the world, and some places in other faiths around the world,” Holeda said. “They have to deal with threats of violence, of death, form either the government or the local population. I think, I kind of brought home, I’ve never had to deal with this.”

In the wake of the fire, Holeda says mass will still be held this weekend.

Michael Williams has been a parishioner at St. Thomas More for about seven years.

“Obviously this person was troubled, one way or the other. There was something in them – whether it was a mental illness case, or somebody with a personal grudge, or they’re trying to make a statement – somehow they’re troubled,” Williams said.

Williams says he hopes whoever set the fire can find healing.

“They need community. They need our support. They need our love and compassion – and right now that’s something that’s hard to give,” Holeda said. “But it’s something that – if we are the Church, and we are followers of Christ, it’s what we’re supposed to do.”

The bishop's chair at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More was badly damaged during a fire suspected of being set by an arsonist Wednesday afternoon.
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM

When Mass is held this weekend, the charred remains of the celebrant chairs will still be behind the altar for Williams and other parishioners to see.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the arson in conjunction with the state fire marshal. The ATF has yet to answer WFSU’s inquiry into whether the arson is being investigated as a federal hate crime.