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Arson suspect in custody after fire damages Salem church

The fire broke out at St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Winter Street Northeast and Chemeketa Street Northeast at around 2:30 a.m. Thursday.

SALEM, Ore. — A suspect was arrested for arson Thursday after an early morning fire damaged St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Salem, the Salem Police Department reported.

Billy James Sweeten, 28, is being held at the Marion County Jail. He faces charges of first-degree arson.

Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack thanked the officers and arson investigators who worked overnight on the investigation into the fire. 

"The church building holds a historical significance in our city," Womack said, "and their diligence in quickly apprehending the subject helped to bring justice to the community.

Around 2:30 a.m., emergency dispatchers received a call about a dumpster fire near St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Winter Street Northeast and Chemeketa Street Northeast. When firefighters arrived, they saw that the dumpster fire had spread to the roof of the church. A priest was evacuated from another building on the church property, but no injuries were reported.

"I’m very relieved nobody got hurt. The church is a building but the church really is the people and so we’re going to continue to pray," said Father Jeff Meeuwsen, who said the church plans to hold Mass this weekend, whether it's in their gym space or in the parking lot.

"We’re just going to do the best we can to pray and to be church as we figure out what to do with the church building, and we’ll all know more when they’re done with the investigation and when they can let us back in," he said.

The Salem Police Department closed nearby roads for about 10 hours. They have since reopened.

Fire departments from Dallas and Keizer, and the Marion County, Mount Angel and Polk County fire districts all helped with containing and suppressing the fire.

At noon Friday, about a hundred people gathered for mass in the church parking lot. They also planned to hold Sunday mass either in the parking lot or the gym. Parishioner Garrett Fisher said he's finding hope in a difficult situation.

"We have a good community, a good God, [the fire] happened for a reason," said Fisher. "It sucks but it's no reason to despair, and the fact that it's arson gives us more reason to pray for those involved." 

Credit: KGW
Credit: KGW

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