Tuesday, January 9, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Prayers replace sadness of arson in Kailua

By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

KAILUA — The doors remain unlocked at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church.

Ann Morgan of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church is grateful that pews and a pipe organ were spared in Saturday’s fire.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

An oil candle mounted on the wall flickers with a symbolic eternal flame.

A lingering smell of smoke, a charred altar and burned floor stand as evidence that the church on North Kainalu Drive was a target of arson. But in the aftermath of Saturday’s fire, a sense of unity has replaced the sadness of an act of violence.

"It’s not really who we are," said the Rev. Cass Bailey, the church’s rector. "The parish is not the building or the things in the building. It’s the people."

At the 450-member church, those who attended services Sunday received a paper towel upon entering and left after pausing to hold hands to feel the pulse of the parish.

Bailey decided to keep using the charred altar because it spoke to what he was trying to preach.

"In my sermon, I said, essentially, that we should give thanks," he said.

Ann Morgan, the church’s senior warden, is still waiting for a damage estimate but is grateful that the wooden pews and the pipe organ in the back of the 56-year-old church were spared.

"Small thing in grand scheme'

"We like to come here because we feel close to God here, but God is really everywhere," she said. "In the grand scheme of things, this is a small thing."

It was a premonition that drew Janis Wolcott to the smoldering fire early Saturday evening. She had passed the Kailua Fire Station a few blocks away but felt compelled to drive to the church, where she works as the financial secretary.

"I have a very strong spiritual background," said Wolcott, who belongs to a Lutheran church but is a contract worker as the financial secretary at St. Christopher’s. "I just had a very strong feeling that God was telling me to go back."

By the time Wolcott pulled in the parking lot between 6:30 and 7 p.m., smoke had billowed into the church office. She called for help.

"It supports my faith," she said. "I’m just glad I could have been there when I was."

When fire crews arrived, the fire was small and contained to the altar.

Investigators have determined someone poured oil from the wall-mounted candle to fuel a fire on a Nativity set on a card table. The flames spread from a tablecloth to the wooden altar, Fire Capt. Glenn Solem said.

Fire investigators have turned the case over to the Honolulu Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division, which is investigating the crime as a criminal property damage case, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has joined the investigation.

ATF leads national task

Ever since a spate of church desecration fires in the South in the mid-’90s, when dozens of black churches were burned, the ATF has led a national task force that investigates fires and bombings at places of worship.

This is the first time since the 1996 legislation that local ATF investigators can remember a Hawaii case involving church desecration, said Tracy Elder, the ATF resident agent in charge.

The national push was to stop hate crimes, but local authorities have no indication this was any more than an act of vandalism. Depending on the circumstances, the ATF could push for federal charges, Elder said.

And at St. Christopher’s, the shock, disbelief and anger have faded into faith that the case will be resolved, Morgan said.

The congregation is praying for the fire-setter and keeping the doors unlocked, welcoming the arsonist back to seek help.

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