Suspect breaks into St. Mary Church in St. Clair, sets fire to altar, steals crucifix

The main altar of St. Mary Parish in St. Clair sustained significant damage after a suspect broke into the church in the early morning of Oct. 1 and lit the altar linens ablaze. St. Mary pastor Fr. Michael Zuelch said the community is praying for the apparent arsonist's conversion, calling it “miraculous” that the church itself didn't burn. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary Parish) 

'Miraculous' that historic church didn't burn down, pastor says; parish prays for apparent arsonist's conversion

ST. CLAIR — In the early morning hours of Oct. 1, a man broke through a side door of St. Mary Parish in St. Clair. Surveillance video showed the man walked around the church for approximately 20 minutes with a knife in hand, taking a few dollars from the St. Vincent de Paul box. 

About 2:30 a.m., he hopped the Communion rail, took a crucifix from the altar, and set the altar linens on fire. He also started a fire on a side altar with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At 6 a.m., the parish’s maintenance director entered the sanctuary to find it filled with smoke.  

Fr. Michael Zuelch, St. Mary’s pastor, immediately secured the Blessed Sacrament and began to pray.

A crucifix that was stolen from St. Mary Church in St. Clair is pictured.
Above, a suspect is captured on security video entering St. Mary Church in St. Clair in the early morning of Oct. 1. Below, the altar damage is seen after the suspect entered the church and lit it on fire. (Photos courtesy of St. Mary Parish and the St. Clair Police Department)

“Our church has been a pillar of the community since 1850, and no one would expect an individual to attempt to burn it down or desecrate our church,” Fr. Zuelch said in a statement to Detroit Catholic. “We are thankful and quite aware that it is miraculous for the fire not to have spread to the entire sanctuary and church.” 

The main altar was on fire for more than four hours, Fr. Zuelch said.

“Roughly half of it burned, and the fire never spread to the altar stone or lit the remaining linens and altar cover on fire,” Fr. Zuelch said. “Our Blessed Mother’s altar was also set on fire and sustained little damage. The best response to the situation are the words, ‘It was the tears of Mary that put the fire out.’”

Extensive smoke damage was sustained throughout the church, which will require scrubbing and potentially repainting. Repairs and restoration could take several months. The parish had just completed a sanctuary renovation this year. 

Fr. Michael Zuelch, pastor of St. Mary Parish in St. Clair, enters a large tent on the church grounds to celebrate Mass Oct. 5. Repairs to the church, which sustained significant smoke damage, could take months, he said. (Photos by Mark Rummel | Special to Detroit Catholic)

St. Clair Police Chief Timothy Raker found it strange that the suspect could have done more damage, but instead attempted to destroy the altar, leaving behind many valuable articles. His department is working with state police forensics and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to investigate all credible leads.

“It’s something we would like to solve quickly,” Chief Raker said. “For the members of the parish and the community, this is upsetting.”

The weekend prior to the fire, the parish held its 45th annual Fall Festival, which ended Sunday evening, and parish staff decided to keep a large tent from the festival to celebrate Sunday Masses. Daily Masses were canceled for the rest of the week, and the funeral Mass of a longtime parishioner had to be moved to another parish. 

Fr. Michael Zuelch celebrates Mass on Oct. 5 for parishioners of St. Mary Parish in a large tent on the parish grounds, which was initially set up for the parish's Fall Festival. 
Parishioners pray during Mass on Oct. 5.
Parishioners are “in shock” over the apparent arson as St. Clair police continue their search for the suspect.

St. Mary’s parish life director Richard Yamin watched the surveillance video.  

“(The perpetrator) knew what he was doing. He purposefully knew the altars are central to our faith,” Yamin said. “I think this opens people’s eyes that this kind of thing doesn’t just happen in Saudi Arabia; this happens wherever we worship the one true God. 

“The community is outraged,” Yamin continued. “When I go to the grocery store, even people who don’t go to church here are angry.”

Deborah Majeski grew up in St. Clair. Despite having lived out of state for 20 years, she considers herself a lifelong St. Mary's parishioner.

“People are in shock that something like this would happen in such a small community, but there’s a foundation of faith and love for our Lord at St. Mary’s. This person will not take away anything from us in terms of the depth of our love,” Majeski said. “I have been praying for (this man’s) conversion and that he feels sorrow for what he did. Even if one soul is converted, it would be a victory.”

“It was the tears of Mary that put the fire out,” St. Mary pastor Fr. Michael Zuelch said. “This tragedy could have been far worse, and we are blessed with the outcome and the opportunity to come together as a stronger people of faith, united with one purpose and one growth in the mystical body of Christ.”

Beginning this week, daily Mass and Sunday Masses will be held in the school gym, which was filled with equipment and flea market items from the festival at the time of the fire.  

“We have this beautiful historic church that people adored, with the statues and relics, and now we’ll be in a gym without that,” Majeski said. “But I think it will draw all of us into deeper prayer, knowing we don’t need those icons to fall in love with the Lord and the Eucharist. It doesn’t matter what environment you’re in — there’s a love to receive Mass.”

In his homily under the tent on Sunday, Fr. Zuelch offered a message of prayer, reconciliation and forgiveness, however hard it might be. 

An aerial shot shows the large tent set up on the grounds of St. Mary Parish in St. Clair, along the St. Clair River. 

“This tragedy could have been far worse, and we are blessed with the outcome and the opportunity to come together as a stronger people of faith, united with one purpose and one growth in the mystical body of Christ,” Fr. Zuelch said.

Fr. Zuelch asked for prayers for St. Mary’s and for unity as they rebuild. Anyone wishing to make a charitable contribution to the parish may contact Yamin at (810) 329-2255.

In the Catholic tradition, a Mass of Reparation is held following the desecration of a worship space. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Fisher, moderator for the Archdiocese of Detroit's Northeast Region, will celebrate the Mass at a date to be determined.

Anyone with information about the crime should contact the St. Clair Police Department at (810) 329-5710 or the Port Huron Capture Line at (810) 987-6688. A $1,000 reward is being offered by the parish.