Austin L. Miller
A man threw some type of incendiary device into Queen of Peace Catholic Church early Saturday, starting a fire that caused significant damage. There were people inside setting up for Mass at the time but no one was injured, authorities said.
Shortly after the incident, Marion County Sheriff’s deputies chased, stopped and eventually detained a suspect in the 5900 block of South Pine Avenue. As of 5 p.m. Saturday no arrest had been announced.
Despite the damage at the church, 6455 SW State Road 200, normal activities will continue. In fact, Mass was scheduled to be celebrated Saturday evening in the parish hall.
“We praise God that no one was injured. We join in prayer for Father (Patrick) O’Doherty, the parishioners of Queen of Peace Catholic Church, our first responders and the gentleman who caused the damage. May we come to know the Peace of the Lord,” said Jennifer Drow, senior director of communications for the Diocese of Orlando, in a prepared statement. O’Doherty is the church pastor.
The FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have joined local officials in the investigation. An FBI official said it was a local matter and they were assisting the MCSO.
The trouble started about 7:30 a.m. Saturday,. A man drove up in a minivan and crashed through the front doors of the church. He got out, threw some type of device into the main area of the building, and a fire started, the Sheriff’s Office said. The man then drove away in the van.
Marion County Fire Rescue said it received the call at 7:35 a.m. and was on scene five minutes later. The fire was under control by 7:47 a.m. Photos provided by the Sheriff’s Office show extensive damage inside the church building.
Calls to 911 alerted law enforcement to what had happened. Deputies happened to be near the church and quickly spotted a vehicle that matched the descriptions that callers had provided.
The Sheriff’s Office said deputies followed the vehicle and forced it to stop. The driver, whose name has not been released, surrendered without incident. Officials did say that the man is a local resident.
At 11:45 a.m., firefighters were ventilating the upper reaches of Queen of Peace to make sure all the smoke dissipated. Fire officials said they concluded their job at 1:40 p.m.
Those leaving the parking lot of the huge church declined comment Saturday morning.
For now, Drow said, the church won’t be granting any interviews.
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