Just as 300 people prepared to receive Holy Communion at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego, California, on December 17, Dean Scott Richardson noticed a peculiar odor in the church.
An assistant discovered a fire burning in the Women's Vesting Room in the undercroft of the cathedral. Richardson asked the congregation to evacuate the nave and the worshippers left the church in an orderly fashion in less than two minutes. Clergy and eucharistic ministers followed and teams continued distributing communion outdoors.
The fire was put out in ten minutes. San Diego Fire Department officials suspect arson, due to the presence of a pile of burned cassocks and surplices worn by the cathedral women and girls choir members. There was also deliberate damage done in the women's restroom in the vesting area and two other public rest rooms under the Great Hall on the other side of the church building. Richardson told television news crews that a member of the staff identified the man thought responsible and his description was given to the authorities.
Preliminary damage estimates are between $60,000 and $100,000 dollars, the dean said.
"A potentially dangerous situation was avoided due to the quick action of our sextons and vergers," he wrote in a letter to the congregation. "I am extremely grateful to all who stepped in immediately to control the chaos. I will never forget the orderly evacuation of three hundred worshipers in a matter of just a few minutes."
As a result of the fire, the cathedral lost power on one of the most active program weekends of the Christian year. However, all the scheduled events for the day went forward, including the Misa en Espanol, the final performance of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and the annual Christmas Lessons and Carols service. St. Paul's Canon for Music, Martin Green, made some last minute changes to sing a full a cappella version. Four hundred worshippers gathered by candlelight for the hauntingly beautiful music and scripture readings.
In his letter Richardson asked parishioners to "pray for the tormented one who caused the damage."
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