By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 19, 2009
Fire investigators have blamed arson for the March 1 fire that gutted the new St. Helena Church as it was nearing completion.
A reward of up to $10,000 is being offered for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist that caused the damage to the church building at 137 Meadow Stream Lane, Clayton.
Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John W. Oxendine determined that the fire in Rabun County was intentionally set, according to a March 16 press release. Authorities did not release details about what started the fire.
The morning fire caused an estimated $250,000 in damage to the Catholic church as members were getting ready to move into the new building in a few weeks.
Father Abel Guerrero-Orta, pastor of St. Helena and St. Mark Church in Clarkesville, said learning the fire was deliberately set made him “angry, very sad, disappointed.” During Mass Monday, March 16, he said he prayed for whoever committed the crime.
After prayer with the community, Father Guerrero-Orta said now he wants to focus on the future, not what happened.
“As a Christian, I believe in the new future. We have to continue to rebuild the church,” he said.
Pat Chivers, communications director for the archdiocese, said the church community is “saddened” to learn the fire was arson.
In a show of support, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory is scheduled to visit the church community in the northwest corner of Georgia soon to “assure them of our support.”
In his weekly Georgia Bulletin column March 13, he spoke of the emotional cost of the fire.
“But even more important than the mere calculation of the financial costs of the fire is the expression of the support of the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta for our brothers and sisters in that North Georgia mountain community who have endured a sorrow at the very moment when they were anticipating rejoicing in the construction of a new home for the Church,” he said.
Father Guerrero-Orta said the church community has received cards of support, Mass cards and phone calls from around the archdiocese. Other churches in Clayton are also showing their support, one bringing food to the community after Mass.
The next step is to remove debris and start any demolition work as quickly as possible, according to Steve Brown of the Catholic Mutual insurance group. A structural engineer will have to evaluate the integrity of the steelwork before rebuilding work can start, he said.
The fire broke out the morning of Sunday, March 1. A neighbor spotted the fire and called 911. Firefighters quickly put it out, but the fire officials reported that it had been smoldering for some time. The building received heavy smoke and water damage.
The church community had plans to move out of its 1960s-era church and into the new building in the spring. Now the move will have to be put on hold.
Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call the Arson Hotline at 1-800-282-5804. Calls are taken 24 hours a day; callers can choose to remain anonymous. The Insurance Commissioner’s Office and the Georgia Arson Control Board, Inc., sponsor the Georgia Arson Control Reward Program and the hotline.