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Cardinal Gregory celebrates vigil Mass at St. Jane de Chantal Church, to be with community after recent arson and vandalism there

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory blesses a baby held by a mother coming to Communion during a Mass at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, Maryland on Aug. 6, 2022. The cardinal said he had come to be with the parish community as the church is being restored there after the recent arson and vandalism there. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Speaking at the beginning of Mass on Aug. 6 to the people gathered at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory said he had come to “be a part of this family in a moment when so many of you were so shaken by the events that touched the house of the church here.” 

The cardinal was referring to how firefighters had responded around 2 a.m. on Sunday July 10 to multiple fires set inside that church, which was also vandalized. Responding to the fire detection system, firefighters from the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service quickly extinguished fires that had been set on the upholstery of several pews. 

The vandalism at the church discovered that morning included the Stations of the Cross having been taken down from the walls and the tabernacle having been broken open. Later that day, the parish’s Sunday Masses were held inside the school’s gymnasium which is also used as a parish hall. Cleaning crews began working immediately in the church, and by the next Saturday, July 16, St. Jane de Chantal Church reopened for public Masses, with Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. presiding at a blessing ceremony and Mass.

The pastor of St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, Father Samuel Giese, at right, welcomes Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory, seen at left, at the beginning of an Aug. 6 Mass at the church in Bethesda, Maryland. The priest thanked the cardinal for his support and encouragement in the aftermath of the arson and vandalism discovered at the church on July 10. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Welcoming Cardinal Gregory to the Aug. 6 Mass there, Father Samuel Giese, the pastor, said, “It is always a pleasure to welcome you to St. Jane de Chantal Parish, but most especially today in the wake of the vandalism and arson that took place in our spiritual home last month. Your presence, your leadership, your encouragement gives us a great deal of strength ourselves and lifts our spirits.”

Cardinal Gregory said he had also come “to publicly thank Father Giese for his extraordinary leadership in the face of the vandalism. He said everything that should be said, and he said it well.”

The congregation of more than 200 people gathered in the church then applauded their pastor.

People pray during an Aug. 6 Mass at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda that was celebrated by Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

When the Masses had to be shifted to the parish hall on July 10, Father Giese spoke at the beginning of the Masses, describing the arson and vandalism. 

“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 said then, later emphasizing that “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.”

St. Jane de Chantel Church was among three houses of worship along Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda 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, before responding early the next morning to the fires and vandalism at St. Jane de Chantal Church. 

Also on July 9, investigators found damaged head stones and broken wood pieces scattered along the 10200 block of Old Georgetown Road near Wildwood Baptist Church.

On July 19, Pete Piringer, the public information officer for the Montgomery County Maryland Fire & Rescue Service, said in a statement that a juvenile suspect had been arrested and charged in the Bethesda church arson and vandalism cases, and the matter is being handled in juvenile court.

“There is no ongoing threat to the community in relation to these incidents,” he said.

In a Washington Post article after the arrest was announced, Father Giese said St. Jane de Chantal Parish was reviewing its security measures. He told the Post that the church would be fine, and he expressed concern for the juvenile suspect and said he hoped that young person will be fine, too.

The concelebrants at Cardinal Gregory’s Aug. 6 Mass at St. Jane de Chantal Church included Father Andrew Clyne, the new parochial vicar there who had begun his assignment on the weekend when the arson and vandalism were discovered.

“Father Andrew, what a way to start a new assignment,” the cardinal said.

Also concelebrating at the Mass was Father Pierre Henri, the pastor of St. Louis of France Parish for French-speaking Catholics, which has a 6:30 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. Jane de Chantal.

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory addresses parishioners at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda at the beginning of an Aug. 6 Mass there, where he expressed solidarity with them and gratitude for the leadership of their pastor, Father Samuel Giese, after the recent arson and vandalism at the church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In his opening remarks at the Aug. 6 Mass, Cardinal Gregory said, “We’re grateful progress has been made, and it’s apparent, in restoring this house of worship, God’s house, to its proper dignity and glory.” He added that as they gathered for the Eucharist together, it was important to remember that “we God’s people need to be restored in hope and health and have our sins forgiven.”

Four of the damaged pews in the church were covered in black plastic and roped off and will be replaced. The Stations of the Cross were not damaged and will be put back on the walls after painting and carpentry work on the walls.

People pray during an Aug. 6 Mass at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda. The roped off pews covered in black plastic had been damaged by fires set by an arsonist that were extinguished by firefighters from Montgomery County Fire & Rescue in the middle of the night on July 10, 2022. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Cardinal Gregory in his homily noted how people pray at Mass to “wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.” He said that people who serve the poor and forgotten will be able to recognize Jesus when he comes again, and he encouraged people to recognize the face of Christ in those who are in need, “so that when He returns in glory, we will immediately recognize Him.”

The poor box collection that day at St. Jane de Chantal supported Catholic Charities’ Sanctuaries for Life program, which assists pregnant women with affordable prenatal and delivery care and support services.

Cardinal Gregory gives Communion to a woman during an Aug. 6 Mass at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In that weekend’s parish bulletin for St. Jane de Chantal, Father Giese had a message to parishioners thanking them “for your prayers, encouragement and support following the vandalism and arson that took place on July 10, 2022 in our church. We are extremely grateful for your consideration and your expressions of solidarity.”

He noted that insurance will cover most of the expenses related to the repair and restoration of the church.

After the Mass in an interview with the Catholic Standard, Father Giese praised the faith of the St. Jane de Chantal parishioners, noting that when they first heard about the arson and vandalism at the church, “initially and understandably, they were shocked and dismayed. But when you are faithful, you have spiritual resources that strengthen you for these difficult moments of life. They weren’t overcome, they weren’t brought down. They found a lot of consolation in their faith.”

Cardinal Gregory greets a family after an Aug. 6, 2022 Mass that he celebrated at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The priest, who served as a Catholic chaplain with the Mississippi National Guard in Iraq in 2004-5 and later retired as an Army colonel, expressed thanks for the work of the firefighters from Montgomery Fire & Rescue Service who quickly extinguished the fires in the middle of the night at St. Jane de Chantal Church on July 10.

“I’m so grateful. I came over to the church expecting it to be a false alarm,” he said. “I saw what they (the firefighters) did and how quickly they did it, and how concerned they were this was a church intentionally set on fire.”

Father Giese noted how they quickly worked to get the smoke out of the church, and he also praised the clean-up crews for working day and night for seven days so the church could reopen for Masses by that next weekend.

Speaking about the juvenile offender arrested for the church arson and vandalism, Father Giese said, “Ultimately what I want for anyone is for someone to have a successful life, to have a happy life, succeeding as the best human being you can be, which is what Jesus reveals to us. My hope is for his well-being, his health, his future and his family.”