Congregation returns to St. Thomas More after arson sets sanctuary on fire

By: Sophia Hernandez | WCTV Eyewitness News
June 9, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – Wednesday afternoon, 32 year old Seth Johnson set fire to the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More. Johnson's fingerprints were found on the scene, leading to his arrest for arson.

The altar at the cathedral, off of Tennessee Street and North Woodward Avenue, experienced severe damage. But on Sunday, the church opened its doors again, for its first service since the incident.

The feelings those in the congregation expressed were heartbroken, shocked, and saddened. Many at Sunday's 9:30 a.m. service, were appalled that something like this could happen to their church.

After his place of worship was up in flames, Joseph Derouen was hurt.

"How could someone enter the house of the Lord and do such a desecrating thing," he asked.

Member Sue Schneider shared, "I'm shocked to hear that anyone would do this, in a church anyway, especially here in Tallahassee."

Those like Schneider that call St. Thomas More home are anxious to see the charred chairs and tarred panels.

"I think it'll bring it that much closer to home, in terms of the seriousness of this occasion," Schneider said.

But others, like Kathy Collins, say that the ash covered sanctuary is a statement of strength.

"I think it will make us grow stronger and we will grow together," she said.

The clergy hopes that seeing the damage might ease the minds of the congregation.

Father John Cayer expressed, "There has been a lot of hurt, and woundedness, but at the same time we have to extend the gift of forgiveness if we are going to get through this if we are going to create some resolve and conclusion."

The first step towards that closure, he says, was speaking to the arsonists father.

"It was a great conversation we had and to know this young man is now in a place where he can perhaps get some help, we're happy about," he explained.

Tim Grobe says he's hoping that justice is served.

"We have to think about how we can work to prevent these things from happening," Grobe said.

While Johnson still remains behind bars, members like Jack Fahey want to extend an olive branch for forgiveness.

"I would love for whoever who did this to really come and be able to experience this and what its all about. Sit down and enjoy mass maybe change his mind," Fahey said.

And from the ashes, those affected by this incident hope to gain peace of mind, as they look towards the future of St. Thomas More.

The clergy and congregation are very grateful to other religious groups and the Tallahassee community for reaching out during this difficult time.

To donate to help with rebuilding efforts, click here.

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