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After fires set at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, pastor encourages people to remember ‘we are the Church’

Around 2 a.m. on Sunday July 10, firefighters arrived at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda and extinguished multiple fires set inside the church, which also was vandalized. (Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)

Three houses of worship along Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, Maryland were struck by acts of vandalism discovered over the weekend of July 9 and 10, with firefighters responding to multiple fires set outside North Bethesda United Methodist Church around 1:30 a.m. Saturday July 9, and firefighters then responding around 2 a.m. on Sunday July 10 to multiple fires set inside St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church, which was also vandalized.

Pete Piringer, the public information officer for the Montgomery County Maryland Fire & Rescue Service, said in a statement that firefighters found a “significant active fire” inside the church upon arrival at St. Jane Frances de Chantal at 9601 Old Georgetown Road. He said after firefighters extinguished the fire, investigators determined the fire was arson, with multiple areas set on fire or attempted to be set on fire there.

Piringer said firefighters found a small fire when they responded early Saturday morning at North Bethesda United Methodist Church at 10100 Old Georgetown Road. He said it was a similar situation to the fires set at St. Jane Frances de Chantal, with multiple fires set or attempted to be set, but the damage was minimal outside the Methodist Church.

In a tweet, he noted that investigators also found damaged head stones and broken wood pieces scattered along the 10200 block of Old Georgetown Road near Wildwood Baptist Church.

Piringer said an open investigation is underway involving the two fires and noted the similar circumstances, locations and apparent times of the vandalism. As of July 10, no motives for the fires or suspects in the incidents were announced by investigators.

A sign outside St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda lets people know that Masses on Sunday July 10 would be held at Christopher Hall, the school gym, after the church was damaged early that morning by fires and vandalism. (CS photo/Mark Zimmermann)

The fires and vandalism at St. Jane Frances de Chantal caused Sunday Masses scheduled for 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. to be shifted from the church to Christopher Hall, which is used as the school gymnasium. Two vans and clean-up crews could be seen outside the church that afternoon.

Clean-up crews responded on July 10 to fire and water damage at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, Maryland, after firefighters extinguished several fires there early that morning. (CS photos/Mark Zimmermann)

Father Samuel Giese, the pastor of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, spoke to parishioners at the beginning of each of those Sunday Masses.

“Last night our church was vandalized. Statues were thrown down, books shredded, the Stations of the Cross pulled off the walls, the tabernacle desecrated. It is a horrific event for us as a church,” he said at the noon Mass. “The individual or individuals also attempted to burn the church. They set fire to a number of pews, but apparently the fire detection system kicked in, the fire companies came, and the fire was put out. There’s an investigation, and it is still going on.” 

Father Samuel Giese, the pastor of St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish in Bethesda, Maryland, addresses parishioners at a July 10 Mass in the school gym, telling them about fires and vandalism at the church that were discovered early that morning. (CS photo/Mark Zimmermann)

The pastor continued, saying, “So we are here. There is quite a bit of water and other mess in the church that will need to be cleaned up, some pews removed, and things like that. So it’s obviously a distressing moment for us here at the church. However, what is important to remember especially now is that we are the Church. We are the living stones. We are the Body of Christ. And as long as our faith is strong and we are faithful, then we are fine, we are absolutely fine.” 

Father Giese then read a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which St. Paul noted that no hardship or distress or persecution “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“And that is true for us here today,” the pastor said. “No vandalism, no fire, no mess in the church can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. And I want you to keep that in your hearts today. We are strong because God is with us.”

The Bethesda priest offered special thanks to Matt and Michelle Flynn and their older sons Matt and Shawn, noting that he contacted the family early Sunday morning to help set up the gym for the Masses. A temporary altar was set up in front of the stage, with about 270 chairs for the people attending Masses there.

“Without their help, we would not have been able to have Mass today,” he said, also expressing thanks to the parish’s facilities manager and music director. 

Father Giese, who on July 6 marked his 10th anniversary as pastor at St. Jane Frances de Chantal, concluded his remarks by saying, “I thank all of you for being here. We pray for those who persecute us. That’s the measure of our Christian faith. Thank you for your attention here, thank you for your fidelity, and God bless you and all of our parish.”

Reacting to the arson and vandalism, a spokesperson for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said, “We are of course shocked and saddened by this, but ours is a deeply committed and resilient community of faith. When we are tested by fire – literally, in this case – our resolve and our bond are only strengthened. Our prayers are with the St. Jane de Chantal community today.”

The archdiocesan spokesperson also noted that, “The St. Jane parish is gathering today, as always, in worship and celebration, and we will pray especially for those who felt compelled to act out in a way that so disrespects our faith and our family.”

Parishioners of St. Jane Frances de Chantal attend Mass in the school gym on July 10. Masses were shifted there after several fires were extinguished in the Bethesda church earlier that day. In the photo below, members of the parish’s music ministry lead the singing at the Mass. (CS photos/Mark Zimmermann)

Before the 5 p.m. Mass at the St. Jane Frances de Chantal gymnasium, Vince Thomas Jr. – a retired attorney who has been a parishioner there since 1976 and who is a cantor with its music ministry – said the vandalism at the church left him “stunned.” He asked, “Why would you burn a church down, what would that accomplish?”

Dr. Peter Williamson, an infectious disease physician who was serving as a Eucharistic minister at the Mass, noted that during the Easter season, a pro-abortion protester was outside the church near Old Georgetown Road, and parishioners brought him juice and an Easter handout every week.

“We respond to hatred with love,” he said.

About 120 people attended that late afternoon Mass, where the opening hymn was “Christ Be Our Light.” Father Giese again addressed parishioners at the beginning of that Mass, encouraging parishioners to remember that “You and I are the living stones of the Church. You and I are the temples of the Holy Spirit. No matter where we worship, God is with us.”

He repeated his message that “nothing separates us from the love of God. The only way evil wins here is if we become discouraged and lose our faith.”

The priest encouraged the people to pray for whoever committed the vandalism.

Father Andrew Clyne, the new parochial vicar at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish in Bethesda, celebrates a July 10 Mass in the school gym on his first weekend at the parish. Early that morning, firefighters extinguished fires set in the church, which was also vandalized. (CS photo/Mark Zimmermann)

Father Andrew Clyne, who began serving as a new parochial vicar at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish that week, celebrated the 5 p.m. Mass.

In his homily, he noted the desecration of the church’s tabernacle, and said, “One doesn’t expect to wake up the first Sunday at a new parish, picking up the Son of God (in the Eucharist) from the floor (of the church) before the sun has risen.”

He said the person or persons who committed the vandalism “didn’t know the One who was there loved them. This person doesn’t know they are loved. Our task, the mission we have laid out in the Gospel, is to manifest this love in the world… That’s the only thing that will transform the world, to bring the light of Christ to it.”

Father Clyne also encouraged parishioners to pray for whoever committed the vandalism at the church, “so they will know the love they don’t know, and the peace they are missing.”

People receive Communion from Father Andrew Clyne during a July 10 Mass in the school gym at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish. That day’s Masses were held there after the Bethesda church was damaged by fires and vandalism that were discovered early that morning. (CS photo/Mark Zimmermann)

After the Mass, Annie Moore, who lives in the neighborhood and is a member of St. Elizabeth Parish in Rockville, said she happened to drive by the church early Sunday morning, returning from BWI Airport, and “we didn’t see anything amiss.” 

Like other Mass-goers, she expressed sorrow about the fires and vandalism at St. Jane Francis de Chantal Church. “It’s hard to believe that someone has that level of hatred or disrespect for someone else’s place of worship,” she said.

After the Mass, a woman greeted Father Giese and thanked him for his message, echoing his words that “we are the Church.”

In a statement, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich decried the church vandalism and suspected arson, saying, “Attacks on houses of worship in Montgomery County are completely unacceptable. The criminal activity that took place over the weekend does not represent the values of inclusion and equity that we are striving for in the communities of this county. We pride ourselves on our diversity of religious communities. A hateful incident against one community impacts us all.”

Elrich added that, “My thoughts are with the leaders and congregants of St. Jane de Chantal Catholic Parish, North Bethesda United Methodist Church, and Wildwood Baptist Church during this very difficult and concerning (time) to the institutions and the families they serve. We have reached out to each of the churches to see if they need any assistance to help them during this time.”

In June, a coalition of pro-life leaders asked the U.S. Department of Justice to vigorously investigate increasing attacks on churches, pregnancy centers and pro-life organizations over the abortion issue. Those institutions have been on alert since the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling that overturned the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion on demand in the United States.

In the past two years even before Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, there have been increasing incidents of vandalism and destruction at Catholic churches and other Catholic properties across the United States.

In October 2021, a swastika was found painted on the pillar at the parking lot at Annunciation Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. According to a statement from that parish then, “the incident was reported to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which has assigned an investigator and classified the graffiti as a hate crime.”

In the fall of last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reported at least 104 incidents of vandalism against Catholic properties have occurred across 29 states since May 2020. Incidents include arson; statues beheaded or with limbs cut, smashed, and painted; gravestones defaced with swastikas and anti-Catholic language and American flags next to those gravestones burned; and other destruction and vandalism. 

In December 2021, a marble statue of Our Lady of Fatima on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington was vandalized, with Mary’s hands and nose cut off, her face scratched and the cross on her crown broken off.

In late May 2022, a burglar cut through a metal protective casing to steal a historic tabernacle at St. Augustine Catholic in Brooklyn, New York. That diocese reported that in the course of the crime, angel statues flanking the tabernacle were decapitated, and consecrated hosts from inside the tabernacle were thrown all over the altar.

(The Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service encourages anyone with information about the fires set at the Bethesda churches to call the arson tip line at 240-777-2263.)