Woburn parish restoration underway after two arson fires

The parishioners and priests at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Woburn were shocked and devastated when not one, but two fires were deliberately set in their church. With each passing day, restoration of the church moves forward, but the fear remains that this deliberate destruction could happen again.

"The first time it happened parishioners were devastated," explained Father Jim Achadinha, the parochial vicar. "The second time they were again very devastated, but also shocked, like, 'Who's doing this to us and why are they doing it?' They were understandably upset."

The first fire, which was set in March, ignited when Missalettes, which have a waxy plastic cover, were stuffed under a church pew and set aflame.

"Damage from the fire wasn't great, it was from the smoke," said Father Achadinha. "Thick black smoke really did a number on the place."

A drop cloth being used to protect a piano during the restoration after the first fire was used to start the second. In the early morning hours of July 26, the Woburn Fire Department responded to the second arson fire.

"Whoever did this took the drop cloth, stuffed it in a piano with a few other things, and used, we think, some paint thinner that was around and lit that on fire," noted Father Achadinha, who was the first to hear the fire alarms going off.

"It was not even a month into my being here," said the recently ordained priest. "I tell people, 'They don't tell us how to deal with arson in the seminary. We didn't take that class,'" he joked.

But, becoming more serious, he said that “it was a shock to awaken to that… I’ve only been here for a couple of months, but it affected me, so [for] people who have been here all their life — I think that it really hurt them.”

"The thing that is sort of scary is that we don't have any idea of who's doing this and why they are doing it," continued Father Achadinha. "If it was some particular reason or they didn't like something, maybe we could change that or work with them."

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Woburn Police and Fire Departments are currently investigating the arson fires. They are asking people with any information to call the Arson Watch hotline at 1-800-682-9229. There is a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist or arsonists.

ATF, along with the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sponsors the National Church Arson Task Force to investigate incidents of arson at churches and other buildings and institutions.

"The burning of churches is a particularly heinous crime because those who would attack our churches seek to strike at our most fundamental liberties and sources of personal support," declares the National Church Arson Task Force in its "Church Threat Assessment Guide," which assesses the vulnerability of a church to arson." "It is a crime if your place of worship is defaced or vandalized."

Both federal and Massachusetts laws consider church arson a criminal offense with a range of punishments, including up to life imprisonment or the death penalty, depending upon the circumstances of the crime.

Section 98 of Chapter 266 of the General Laws of Massachusetts includes a description of arson and the punishment if no bodily injury is done, as in the case of St. Charles Borromeo Church. The law states: “Whoever willfully, intentionally and without right, or wantonly and without cause, destroys, defaces, mars or injures a schoolhouse, church or other building erected or used for purposes of education or religious instruction… shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000, or by imprisonment for not more than two years, or both.”

"The investigators said that if this person really wanted to burn down the church all they would really have to do is douse it with gas, but they didn't do that," noted Father Achadinha. "They just picked a particular area and set off a small fire to cause damage, but not to destroy the structure of the church or the integrity of the church, but just to cause more of an inconvenience."

"The arson investigators are just worried that this could definitely happen again."

According to Father Achadinha, the two fires resulted in approximately $500,000 damage to the upper and lower church. Insurance is covering a portion of the costs to restore the lower church, but the parish will have to come up with the funds for the work that needs to be done in the upper church.

Work on the lower church is scheduled to be completed by the end of September, after which repairs to the upper church will begin.

Various petition drives and fundraisers have been scheduled to help defray the cost of repairs. One such fundraiser is the upcoming, Sept. 12, ‘St. Charles Restoration Fund Dinner Dance,’ sponsored by the Woburn Knights of Columbus.

Grand Knight of Council 77 and a 31-year parishioner at St. Charles, Walter Desharnais, began planning the event shortly after the first fire.

"Because there was so much damage we decided to jump right in and organize this dinner dance," he said. We [the Knights] do as much for the Church as we can."

The dinner dance, which will be held at The Crestview in Woburn, will feature live entertainment and cash raffles. All proceeds from the evening will go toward the restoration of the upper church. The goal of the event is to raise between $3,000–$4,000.

"It's turning out to be quite a success. We've already collected close to $2,000 in private donations, $3,000 worth of tickets have been sold, and we're looking forward to possibly 200 people attending," said Desharnais.

Desharnais recalled that after the first fire a member of the media asked him whether his faith had been shaken by the arson.

"It doesn't affect my faith," he remembers responding. "If St. Charles had burned to the ground, my faith would still be there; if the building had burned down, we would rebuild it.

The Church will still be there.”