Accused Cathedral Arsonist Arraigned, Parishioners Carry On - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

10/08/03

Accused Cathedral Arsonist Arraigned, Parishioners Carry On

Monsignor O'Neill Monsignor O'Neill

The man accused of setting a fire inside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist has been arraigned. Yesterday morning, police arrested 31-year-old Stuart Smith of Marietta, Georgia, after he entered the cathedral with gun, threatened a church worker and started a fire. Smith told police he was disturbed about the world's religions, and that's why he took over the church.

The Cathedral Heritage Ball is November 15 at the Westin Savannah Harbor and Resort. Call the Cathedral Parish Center at 233-4709 to get an invitation mailed to you. You can go to the ball or you can donate the money.

This morning he was charged with aggravated assault and arson. Police say more charges are pending, and the Catholic community is trying to move on. Monsignor O'Neill, the man who confronted yesterday's intruder, spoke with parishioners about the incident today, and those who know the monsignor will tell you he's one interesting character. Despite having a gun in his face yesterday, he did what he could to put the fire out and save the building from burning down.

For the second day in a row, noon mass services were held beneath the cathedral's sanctuary. Upstairs, the burnt remains of yesterdays' chaos are still evident, and parishioners are still in shock. "I could not imagine that somebody could come in here and set fire to the church," Sharon O'Neill said.

But Monsignor O'Neill calmed parishioners' concerns, saying, "Not to worry, we will have masses upstairs on Sunday this weekend, so everything is fine."

He is keeping a positive attitude, and parishioner Mary Clark Rechtiene told us, "We are all very proud of monsignor and his attitude, and nothing is going to keep Monsignor O'Neill down."

During today's mass, he prayed for the intruder, Smith, despite the fact that the man set the cathedral on fire and pointed a gun in the monsignor's face. "That was the most difficult part for me, was watching the fire burning and burning," he said. 

Church officials hope yesterday's incident will bring the Catholic community together. Next month the diocese holds its annual Cathedral Heritage Ball, an event that helps raise money to preserve the cathedral. The event is November 15 at the Westin Savannah Harbor and Resort. Call the Cathedral Parish Center at 233-4709 to get an invitation mailed to you. You can go to the ball or you can donate the money.

Reported by: Elizabeth Garcia, egarcia@wtoc.com

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