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Chula Vista church forgives arsonist and celebrates centennial anniversary

From ashes and arson, St. John's Episcopal Church shares an inspiring congregation comeback story.

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — St. John's Episcopal Church in Chula Vista is celebrating its Centennial Anniversary with a story of resilience and forgiveness. In this Zevely Zone, I share the congregation's inspiring comeback story. 

On April 11, 1994, St. John's Episcopal Church was completely destroyed by an arsonist. Along with a charred chalice and collection plate, the congregation could only salvage a few vestments worn by the clergy. "I am bothered by this so much," said one of the church leaders.  

The crime led our newscast in 1994 and was reported by CBS 8's Liz Pursell. "There wasn't much to the recovery effort because there isn't a whole lot to recover. This fire burned so hot even the stone walls have to come down," said Liz during her report.

Credit: St. John's Episcopal Church in Chula Vista

The sanctuary may have been gutted, but church members bonded together with prayer. "No matter where you are in your spiritual journey you are welcome here," said longtime congregation member David Dennehy. He and his wife Linda were married in the church that was gone. "There's no words. It was devastating. That was our spiritual home," said David. "That was over the altar." David pointed to a burned crucifix the couple exchanged their wedding vows under in 1977.  

The crucifix was burned in the fire but still hangs at St. John's today. "To see that, to look at that, there's been many times I've had tears in my eyes just standing here looking up," said David.

Credit: St. John's Episcopal Church in Chula Vista

Insurance paid for the loss, but finding forgiveness wasn't easy. Liz Pursell asked church members in 1994 about the destruction. "It's heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking.

Credit: St. John's Episcopal Church in Chula Vista

You get mad, you get angry, I'm angry," said two church members. Days after the fire, police arrested James Berry for the crime. A 30-year-old homeless man living in the area. "I think it's very sad, he's a very ill fellow. He is mentally ill. I am not a doctor, but he came dressed as a shepherd one day," said a member of the church in 1994. Police said Berry had a criminal history and was suspected of setting fire to another church.

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A wrecking ball demolished the burned down building, but just three years later in 1997 a new church stood in its place. "While we have this magnificent, beautiful building, to me, it's really the people that are the church," said current Reverend Roger Haenke.  

The church is not only celebrating its Centennial Anniversary but the 25-th anniversary of the rebuild. 

Credit: St. John's Episcopal Church in Chula Vista

"The person who started the fire was eventually imprisoned and the rector at the time went to the prison and forgave him. Sorry I get choked up. I think it speaks volumes about who we are as Christian people and believing in the Gospel message that Christ forgives," said Reverend Haenke. It brings tears to the reverend's eyes; the building may have been lost but never the faith of his congregation. "Resilience. They are able to rise and create a new," said Reverend Haenke.

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The new church was rebuilt, then dedicated and consecrated on March 9, 1997. St. John's will be celebrating their congregation's Centennial Anniversary with a dinner on September 17th. On Sunday, September 18, St. John's will be celebrate a special Centennial Sunday Service at 9 am with Bishop Susan Brown Snook. The public is invited.

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