A view of the inside of the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Tallahassee after the fire. (COURTESY | DIOCESE OF PENSACOLA/TALLAHASSEE)

Tallahassee cathedral set ablaze, arson likely

Tallahassee  |  Catholic parishioners expected to attend their evening Mass at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Tallahassee, but instead were subjected to news of a probable arson attack to their beloved church.

Officers arrived on the scene Wednesday around 4:30 p.m. to witness Darha Nixon, the church’s business manager, inform them of the news. Nixon had already fought the fire with a chemical fire extinguisher that scorched much of the wall. According to Nixon, when custodians of the church prepared for the afternoon Mass, they opened the side doors, which is where the suspect likely entered the church.

Tallahassee police reports noted the innards of the church was full of smoke and that three chairs — including the bishop’s cathedra — were burned. Resting atop one of the chairs was a burned Bible.

Luckily, the fire was caught in time and didn’t spread to other parts of the cathedral. No injuries were reported.

Bishop William A. Wack, of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, who has endured 2018’s Hurricane Michael that devastated much of the rural and coastal portions of area, released a statement about the June 5 fire:

“Today, there was a fire inside the Co-Cathedral church in Tallahassee. The cathedra and presiders’ chairs were set on fire and are destroyed. The walls of the sanctuary are charred, and there is smoke damage. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and it went out before igniting the whole building. An investigation is underway. Thank you for your prayers.”

Mass will continue at St. Thomas More despite the fire. Daily and night Mass will continue now in the chapel nearby with expectations to return to regular Mass again by Sunday.

Officials are calling the St. Thomas More fire arson and investigations are ongoing.

On May 23, Bishop Wack released a video message as a “State of Diocese” address marking his 18-month tenure of the diocese during which he has visited all of the parishes and missions of the 18-county diocese within Florida’s Panhandle  — save two chapels, which he said he hoped to visit soon. In the video, he spoke about the challenges of the local church, specifically the impact of Hurricane Michael, which he described as the “four-hour storm” that created an enormous amount of devastation that will take more than just a few months or a year from which to recover.

“We’re rebuilding thanks be to God and insurance, but it will take time, so we need patience,” he said. “I know we will fully recover in the months and years ahead.”

He also spoke about the sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Church on both the national and international level. The bishop remarked how the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese has “worked hard for the last few decades to make safe welcoming place for children and all people.”

“We need to be transparent and show the world what we have been doing and what we are doing, and continue to provide a loving, warm and caring place for all of God’s children,” he said.

The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese is a “dual see” diocese that has two centers from which the bishop governs: Pensacola and Tallahassee. Each see city has a cathedral — the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Pensacola and the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Tallahassee. The diocese spans 14,044 square miles and has a total Catholic population of 63,256.