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Juvenile arrested in Montgomery church arsons, fire official says

There is no threat to the community, authorities say

Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service personnel respond earlier this month to a call about a fire at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish. (Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)

A juvenile has been arrested and charged in connection with recent incidents of arson and vandalism at two churches in Montgomery County, the fire department said.

The matter is being considered in juvenile court, according to Pete Piringer, the spokesman for the county fire and rescue service.

The incidents occurred July 9 and 10 at two churches on Old Georgetown Road in the North Bethesda area. The churches are North Bethesda United Methodist Church and St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish.

It was unclear whether the juvenile had been charged in another incident on July 9 at Wildwood Baptist Church, also located on Old Georgetown Road, which the fire department said was believed to be vandalized but not set on fire. The Montgomery County Police Department said it could not disclose further details on the case or whether the juvenile had been charged.

Three churches in Bethesda vandalized, two of them set on fire

Montgomery Fire and Rescue Service responded to a report of fire early July 9 at North Bethesda United Methodist Church, and as investigators were leaving they found debris and damage on Old Georgetown Road believed to be vandalism of Wildwood Baptist Church, Piringer said. The next day, fire and rescue workers responded to another fire, this time at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish.

The Rev. Kara Scroggins, the pastor of North Bethesda United Methodist Church, said she was out of town during the incident but volunteers cleaned up all day that Saturday to ensure services could resume as scheduled the next day.

There were small attempted fires, but only a banner that was under the smoke detector ignited, which set off the alarm, according to Scroggins. The damage was located in the fellowship hall and food pantry area of the church, with pantry supplies such as coffee, ketchup and other condiments dumped on the floor, Scroggins said.

Pastor David Sayne of Wildwood Baptist Church said he was unaware of the damage to the church’s cemetery until the afternoon when he asked a police officer walking around the church outside. Sayne said the officer told him there was a fire at North Bethesda United Methodist next door and that some wood, which police believed to be from Wildwood, was found in the road.

“I said, ‘Yeah, our cross is gone,’” Sayne said, referring to the eight-foot wooden cross used by the church for Easter services. “I saw two marble stones that were in the parking lot of the church, and really I thought that was all the damage done.”

When he started walking around the graveyard, Sayne said he found damage to 13 marble or stone markers that were either turned over, knocked off their pedestal or completely broken into pieces. The monuments dated to the 1800s, he said.

He said the church will need to raise money to repair the damages and replace some stones.

At St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, the Rev. Samuel Giese said pews were set on fire, statues were pulled off their pedestals, a sanctuary lamp was broken, plants on the altar were thrown about and “anything that was glass was broken.” Giese said an American flag that belonged to the church was also burned on the floor and that some of the books used for Mass were shredded.

The church was closed from July 10 to this past Saturday while the building was cleaned up and restored, Giese said. Services were held at the school gym, which is also on the property.

St. Jane Frances de Chantal held a “service of restoration” Saturday to celebrate the return of services in the church, Giese said. Though initial feelings were of shock, Giese said the church’s security measures are being reviewed and the church “will be fine.”

“My concern would be for this young person and for the family,” Giese said. “We want this young person to be fine, too.”