A Florida man admitted to setting a Catholic Church on fire July 11 while people were inside preparing for the Mass.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said Steven Anthony Shields, 24, of Dunnellon, Florida, was arrested soon after he set the fire at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala.
The Catholic News Agency reports Shields allegedly drove his van through the front doors of the church around 7:30 a.m. and poured gasoline in the foyer. Then, he allegedly lit the foyer on fire and drove away.
Parishioners who were inside preparing for Mass called the sheriff’s office, and a deputy chased Shields and arrested him, according to the report.
According to the sheriff’s office, Shields acknowledged that he was aware people were inside the building when he started the fire.
“We praise God that no one was injured,” the Orlando Catholic diocese told CNA. “We join in prayer for Father O’Doherty, the parishioners of Queen of Peace Catholic Church, our first responders and the gentleman who caused this damage. May we come to know the Peace of the Lord.”
The diocese did not describe the extent of the fire damage, but it said the church will hold Masses this week in the parish hall.
Ocala News reports local firefighters responded quickly to the blaze and were able to control the fire within seven minutes.
Deputies said Shields confessed to the crime. They say he told them he had a problem with the Catholic church and that he was on a mission. He laughed and called himself a “king” as he described his actions as “awesome,” deputies said. Shields told them he has schizophrenia and that he was not taking his medication.
Shields was charged with attempted second-degree murder, arson, burglary and felony fleeing.
Sheriff Billy Woods said he is proud that his deputies were able to catch Shields so quickly.
“Our freedom of worship granted in the Constitution is a freedom that we all hold dear,” Woods said in a statement. “My deputies and I are sworn to protect that right and will always ensure our citizens can worship in peace.”
In May, a Mississippi church also was set on fire after it sued to stay open during the coronavirus shutdowns. Along with setting the fire, someone spray-painted graffiti on the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, including a message that read, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic].” As of mid-June, no arrests had been made, WMC News 5 reports.
Earlier this week, CBS News Boston reported a statue of the Virgin Mary also was set on fire outside a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Vandalism and violence are increasing against Christians, pro-life advocates, conservatives and others with beliefs and opinions considered outside the mainstream. Across the country this spring, pro-life advocates were arrested or threatened with arrest for praying and sidewalk counseling outside abortion facilities during the health crisis.