Three churches vandalized in Montgomery Co., arson investigation underway

Officials say vandals damaged three churches in Bethesda, Maryland, this weekend with fires being set at two of them. Investigators believe it is arson.

Around 2:15 a.m. on Sunday, Montgomery County firefighters responding to a call found several church pews on fire at Saint Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church, located on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda near the Capital Beltway.

Within hours, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service had launched an arson investigation into the fire.

Less than a mile away, early Saturday morning officials discovered vandals had damaged the Wildwood Baptist Church and neighboring North Bethesda United Methodist Church, where a small fire had been started on the property outside, causing an estimated $1,000 in damages.

Investigators also found damage to head stones & broken wood pieces scattered at the cemetery adjacent to Wildwood Baptist.

At Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, officials said it took about 65 firefighters to put out the fire. There have been no reported injuries from the blaze. Damages to the church have been estimated to be around $50,000.

“Anybody who lives in this area, if they saw any unusual activity after midnight and before 2 a.m., call us,” said Montgomery County Fire and EMS Spokesperson Pete Piringer.

Despite the early morning fire, Sunday’s masses were held at the church’s Christopher Hall Gymnasium, according to the parish website.

Addressing the congregation and those watching the mass’s livestream, Rev. Samuel Giese shared news of the vandalism.

“Last night our church was vandalized,” Giese said. “People broke in. They overturned statues. They tore down the Stations of the Cross. They desecrated the tabernacle and tried to set the church on fire.”

Giese said he believed the vandalism was in response to the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance. He alluded to the country’s political divide on abortion, which has deepened since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that had legalized abortion almost 50 years ago.

“I believe that this is because of the church’s stand on the issue of life: when it begins, and that it should be protected. And that this is one of the manifestations of the deep divisions right now within our country. That there are those who believe that we do not have even the right to practice our faith,” Giese said.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington said in an email they were shocked and saddened by the vandalism, adding “when we are tested by fire (literally, in this case), our resolve and bond are only strengthened.”

Investigators are looking for more information about the fires. Anyone who may have seen suspicious activity near these churches is asked to call Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service’s tip line at 240-777-2263.

Hugh Garbrick

Hugh graduated from the University of Maryland’s journalism college in 2020. While studying, he interned at the Queen Anne & Magnolia News, a local paper in Seattle, and reported for the school’s Capital News Service. Hugh is a lifelong MoCo resident, and has listened to the local radio quite a bit.

John Aaron

John Aaron is a news anchor and reporter for WTOP. After starting his professional broadcast career as an anchor and reporter for WGET and WGTY in Gettysburg, PA, he went on to spend several years in the world of sports media, working for Comcast SportsNet, MLB Network Radio, and WTOP sports.

Lauren Hamilton

Lauren Hamilton is an Associate Producer at WTOP and a graduate of the University of Maryland. She enjoys covering the intersection of arts, culture and social justice in local communities. She began as an intern with WTOP in the summer of 2021.

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