SALEM, Ore. — Congregants of a Salem church that was damaged in a fire last week, returned to worship Sunday. Instead of gathering as they generally would inside the church, churchgoers of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church congregated in the parking lot.
Around 2:30 Thursday morning, emergency dispatchers received a call about a dumpster fire near St. Joseph's on Winter Street Northeast and Chemeketa Street Northeast. When responders arrived, they realized the fire had spread to the roof of the church. It is suspected that the fire started as a result of arson.
“It’s devastating to see this church I’ve known all my life to be attacked like this,” said Stephen Meier, a congregant of St. Joseph's.
48-year-old Billy James Sweeten faces a charge of first-degree arson. He is being held in the Marion County Jail.
No one was hurt in the fire, but those at Sunday’s service can’t understand why someone would set a fire to a church.
“Really very, very sad that someone would deliberately do this kind of harm to anybody’s house, but also to this house of prayer,” Archbishop Alexander Sample said.
St. Joseph’s was dedicated 70 years ago, but parishioners have been worshiping near the location since 1853.
“It’s just ... the devastation is just overwhelming,” said Trisha Meier, another congregant of the church.
St. Joseph’s serves 3,000 people, and holds services in three different languages. Just a couple of months ago, the church welcomed a new priest.
But many of the people who gathered for mass on Sunday are certain the church will persevere and recover from the damage.
“Faith is alive, and the faith of these people and their hope,” Sample said. “These are people of hope.”
Next weekend, the congregation will worship in the gymnasium. It is not clear when mass can resume in the church. St. Joseph’s also has an ongoing fundraiser to help them repair the damage of the fire.