First Sunday Mass After Cathedral Fire - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

10/12/03

First Sunday Mass After Cathedral Fire

Less than a week after a tragic fire, parishioners were back in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for Sunday Mass. On Tuesday, a man walked into the Cathedral with a gun and lighter fluid and ordered everyone out. Before he could be stopped, he set fire to the pulpit and the Bishop's chair.

Peggy Baker was working there as a guide that day. "I think it's brought a lot of people to realize the one thing we need to be thankful for is that no one got hurt," she said. Still, Baker is trying to put the event behind her. "My life has changed," she added. "(I have) nightmares, but I'll get over that because I have God on my side."

Inside, the sanctuary is almost back to normal. Still, there are signs of the frightening ordeal that happened five days ago: singed walls and a new, temporary pulpit that has replaced the one that was badly burned.

"Everything is quite normal except for the furnishings," said Monsignor William O'Neill "We didn't use any incense today. We are missing carpets, but other than that, it is the spirit of the people that counts."

In the spirit of forgiveness, Catholics are calling on God to help them and the man who committed this horrible act. "You feel a great deal of grief," explained parishioner Paul Thigpen. "First of all, for the man himself. He must have been awfully troubled to have done this kind of thing."

Thirty-one year old Stuart Smith of Marietta, Georgia is accused of setting the fire. He's being held in the Chatham County Jail. He told police he tried to burn the Cathedral down because he was disturbed about the world's religions. He's being charged with aggravated assault and arson. More charges are pending.

Church officials estimate it could take several hundred thousand dollars to clean and restore the Cathedral.

Reported by Liz Flynn, lflynn@wtoc.com

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