Tigard police are investigating a fire that burned one of the Three Wise Men and a manger that held the infant Jesus at St. Anthony Catholic Church on New Year's Day as a possible bias crime.
Nearby residents who were coming home at the time were able to douse the flames, and there was no child in the manger at the time of the 2:30 a.m. fire thanks, to the nightly removal of the newborn figurine from the crèche by a parishioner.
Both the Tigard Police Department and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue were call to the incident after the fire had already been extinguished, according to officials.
The Rev. John Henderson, St. Anthony head pastor, said it's hard to determine the motivation of whomever started the fire, but he felt it was with the intention of doing deliberate damage to church property. He said the other two possibilities could be vandalism by young people or someone trying to warm themselves.
"Luckily, we have a person in our parish — his name is John — and he would always take the baby Jesus out," said Henderson. "Had baby Jesus been in there — the statue of baby Jesus — that would have been first to be destroyed. It looked like they were going for that."
The crib was totally incinerated.
"I chose not to make a big deal of this, because it is how it is. But we're not going to let that defeat us," said Henderson. "We're already thinking how we're going to do it differently next year."
Henderson said if anything, there had been talk that someone might steal one of the half-life-size figurines or destroy them, hence the need to bring in the Jesus figurine each night.
A member of the Knights of Columbus built the modular wooden structure that shelters the fiberglass figurines, and it's the Knights, a Catholic fraternal service order, that set up and take down the display each year, according to Jeff Frisch, who serves as grand knight for Council 3591.
Henderson called the person who discovered the fire "a little angel," adding that he thanks God for that person.
While he said he hopes whoever started the fire is caught, he's trying to find ways to lead his congregation forward at the same time.
"I pray for the people. That's all I can do," Henderson said. "But we've decided we're not going to allow anything to stop us from continuing to be present in the community."
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