CV NEWS FEED // A suspect is in custody for causing the fire that ravaged St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Salem, Oregon, this week.
What began as a dumpster fire in the early hours of the morning of August 31 soon escalated, spreading to the roof of the church building. On the same day, the Salem Police Department announced the arrest of a suspect, Billy James Sweeten, in a statement shared with CatholicVote.
“Due to the suspicious circumstances of the fire, arson detectives from the Salem Police Felony Crimes Unit responded to the scene for the investigation, resulting in the arrest of Billy James Sweeten, age 48,” the police department said in the statement.
Sweeton will face first-degree arson charges and is currently in Marion County Jail.
Five other fire departments came to the Salem Fire Department’s aid to put out the fire.
“Salem Fire firefighters and dispatchers, in conjunction with mutual aid resources, were integral in containing and suppressing this significant structure fire,” Salem Fire Chief Mike Niblock said in the statement. “I appreciate the effort by all the emergency responders on this incident.”
Even though there have been no reports of injuries, the fire severely damaged the parish, which serves about 3,500 people. While the outer brick remains, the roof sustained heavy damage, and photos show debris and water covering the floor.
“Arriving Salem Fire Department personnel found the tall flames from the dumpster fire spread to the roof of the church building. Within an hour, Salem Fire crews requested assistance from regional fire agencies as the fire was upgraded to a four-alarm status,” said the press release.
Ten hours of road closures in several areas followed the alarm, the release said, and priest living on church property was also safely evacuated.
“My thanks to the officers and arson investigators who worked throughout the night on this case,” Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack said in the release. “The church building holds a historical significance in our city, and their diligence in quickly apprehending the suspect helped to bring justice to the community.”
St. Joseph’s parish dates back 170 years in Salem, according to its website. The parish first rented a local building in 1853 until it moved into a larger building in 1864. In 1889, the church moved again until the present church was consecrated in 1953.
Former parishioners Foster and Juliana Lerner were married at St. Joseph’s Church, and shared their reaction to the fire with CatholicVote in an email.
“We were distressed to hear that St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Salem, Oregon, was destroyed by a fire early yesterday morning, and today to learn it was the work of an arsonist.
St. Joseph’s was Juliana’s parish, and the couple attended daily mass together at St. Joseph’s while discerning their marriage.
“I am glad the arsonist responsible has been arrested, and hopefully this deters other attacks, yet it does little to change my deep sense of loss because this place that has meant so much to us has been destroyed,” Foster Lerner said.
This is not the only parish the Lerner couple has lost to a fire. Less than three months ago, a fire destroyed the parish where they celebrated their Rite of Bethrothal. Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida, was destroyed on the one-year anniversary of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision.
“In contemplating these events, my mind goes back to the book of Hebrews (12:6), ‘For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth,’” Foster Lerner shared. “If we would reign with our Lord Jesus, we must be willing to suffer loss in this world, whether that be of employment opportunities, fellowship with those we love, and even the destruction of our houses of worship.”
Foster, Juliana, and their two young sons live in the Diocese of Tyler in Texas. As a convert from Anglicanism, Foster, along with his family, is a Catholic of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a diocese equivalent for Catholic converts who were raised Anglican.
“I am saddened that these physical landmarks from high points in my life have been reduced to ashes. I do not know the reasons why these buildings were burnt,” said Lerner. “I can say however that I have joy in living as a Catholic Christian with my wife and our children, celebrating and defending a culture that values and protects all human life.”
Lerner, who is a physician training in the field of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas at Tyler, says he is thankful for the guidance he has received from both the destroyed Catholic parishes.
“I am grateful to both these communities for informing and nourishing my wife’s and my Catholic Faith, and I encourage all to support both of these communities with donations and prayer as they rebuild.”