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Church a frequent target of vandals

5/7/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The repairs have been made and Sunday services resumed, but the severity of the damage in this historic-but-prone-to-vandalism rural church still shocks its senior member.

It could have been much worse, however, had the vandals been successful in starting a fire on a furnace vent in the center of St. Andrew Episcopal Church, a limestone-and-sandstone church situated in the northern part of Ellis County.

While there are a few people who are considered "persons of interest," according to Ellis County Sheriff's detective Chuck White, no arrests have been made.

"We have not categorized them as suspects," he said.

But White would be grateful for any information that might help him solve the vandalism that could have brought down a church.

So would the small congregation, made up of approximately 10 people.

Dan Johnson, a rancher and retired legislator, clearly recalls the March 17 morning he and his wife, Gwen, opened the door to the church they've worshipped at for years.

"Gwen and I were the first ones to arrive at church," he said. "I opened the door, and the place was just destroyed."

A window was broken, and Johnson said it appeared they tried to light a fire in the center of the church, atop a furnace grate. Bottles of vodka were broken against the walls and splashed on the carpet.

A prayer book was taken and a small pew was broken, now sitting at the rear of the church, a stark reminder of the damage.

The damage was especially disheartening, Johnson said, because the church members had worked to get the church ready for Palm Sunday services.

"It was looking pretty good," he said of the small but picturesque church.

While a back window was broken, it wasn't one of the stained glass windows in the church.

"Our stained glass windows are beautiful," Johnson said, "and could not be replaced."

St. Andrew, because of its rural location, is a frequent target of vandals.

"We've had this stuff happen in the past," he said. "This was really bad."

Despite its remote location, parishioners don't lock the church.

"When we lock the doors, we come back and they are torn off," Johnson sad.

Once, a small cabinet in the church was broken apart because it had a lock on it, even though there was nothing valuable inside.

Despite its small size and reliance on a retired minister who makes it to St. Andrew only twice a month, the church has regular services at 10 a.m. every Sunday.

"Unless there's a blizzard," Johnson said.

He leads a prayer service on the two Sundays each month the church meets without a priest.

It was a disaster the church could ill afford.

"It was right in the neighborhood of $3,000 to get all the cleaning done," he said.

Despite that, Johnson expresses relief.

"We feel really lucky because it could have been so much worse," he said. "If they would have gotten that fire started, it would be a pile of red and white rock.

"How could anyone take pleasure in doing this to anything, let alone a church?"

White, at the sheriff's office, would be happy to know just who did it.

Items left behind at the church bear fingerprints, and White said he hopes to send them to the KBI for identification -- despite a normal prohibition against that because the vandalism is considered a misdemeanor.

"This church, unfortunately, it's a beautiful building," White said. "It's just so isolated."

Despite that, he said, deputies have stepped up patrols.

White is asking anyone with information about the vandalism to call the sheriff's office at (785) 625-1040.