Florida Church Rebuilding After Arson Attack

The church was housing several relics – from St. Therese, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, and St. John of the Cross – which were among the few things that did not burn in the fire.

The interior of Queen of Peace Parish in Ocala, Florida during rebuilding after the church was set on fire July 11, 2020.
The interior of Queen of Peace Parish in Ocala, Florida during rebuilding after the church was set on fire July 11, 2020. (photo: Mike Boisvert/Knights of Columbus)

OCALA, Florida — The Catholic community at Queen of Peace Parish in Ocala, Florida is rebuilding after the church was set on fire earlier this month.

In addition to the physical restoration, Fr. Patrick O'Doherty, the church’s pastor, said the community is keeping the faith.

“Evil never attacks evil. The church is something very good. I take the attack on the church as a sign that we’re doing the right thing here,” he said in a video posted recently to YouTube by the Diocese of Orlando.

On the morning of July 11, a man crashed a minivan through the front door of Queen of Peace Catholic Church. He then set the church aflame while parishioners inside prepared for morning Mass.

Police arrested Stephen Anthony Shields, 24, of Dunnellon, Florida later that day. He has been charged with attempted murder, arson, burglary, and evading arrest.

According to local media, Shields told police he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but is not currently taking prescribed medication. He said that he awoke on Saturday morning with a “mission,” and that he purchased the gas at a nearby gas station, according to Ocala-News.

In the diocese’s video, Fr. O’Doherty thanked God that no one was injured in the incident. He recalled his experience that morning.

“This white van came towards me, did a U-turn, jumped the pavement, and crashed into…the two front doors of the church. He’d gotten inside the narthex, put 10 gallons of gasoline on the floor, set it on fire and came out, and I was face-to-face with him,” the priest said. “He jumped into his car, and off he sped.”

Last week, the parish posted an update on the restoration process on Facebook. Current work includes the disassembly of the organ pipes and the early stages of demolishing the narthex. The full restoration is expected to take 8-10 weeks.

Fr. O’Doherty said artwork on the church walls was damaged and will be replaced.

The church was housing several relics – from St. Therese, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, and St. John of the Cross – which were among the few things that did not burn in the fire.

Bishop John Noonan of Orlando said Catholics should see this as a reminder of God’s providence, prompting us to greater trust.

“The good Lord always works miracles. Certain things in life show us that we’re not in charge,” he said in the diocese’s video. “The Lord is in charge, and these are the moments where we have to realize there’s a greater power than we are.”

He also stressed the need to imitate Christ in forgiving those who have harmed us, saying, “The whole message of the Gospel is redemption, forgiveness. If we don’t have forgiveness in our hearts, then what are we filling our hearts with?”

With attacks on Catholic churches and statues across the country, the bishop stressed the need for trust amid uncertainty.

“At the moment, all of us are apprehensive about many things,” he said. “It’s like the disciples in the boat, in the middle of a storm. They wake Jesus up and say, ‘Aren’t you concerned about our safety? What shall we do?’ And Jesus’ response is, ‘Don’t you have faith?’”

“The question today is: Where is the good news?” Bishop Noonan continued. “The good news is in the Gospel. The good news is Jesus Christ. And unless we hear the good news, then we are lost.”

Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541

Dare We Admit That Not All Will Be Saved?

“To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’” (CCC 1033)