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Priest Thwarts Attempted Arson at Somerville’s Immaculate Conception Church New Year’s Eve

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Paper towels were torn from this towel rack and set on fire in the sink beneath the cabinet, causing substantial damage to the cabinet's underside. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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Father Alex Carles shows where flames burned cabinet doors where chalises are kept at Somerville's Immaculate Conception Church Credits: Rod Hirsch
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Father Alex Carles shows that the chalices stored in the cabinet above the sink where the fire was set were not damaged.  Credits: Rod Hirsch
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Father Alex Carles discovered a second small fire in the sacristy, which left scorch marks on the wall and bulletin board. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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SOMERVILLE, NJ – Police and fire officials are investigating an attempted arson at Immaculate Conception R.C. Church late New Year’s Eve.

Two separate fires were lit in the sacristy at the rear of the church at 35 Mountain Blvd. sometime between 10:15 and 11:15 p.m., according to Rev. Alex Carles, who discovered both fires inside the room.

He had just finished a worship service and was returning hymnals to the sacristy, where the church stores priests’ vestments, chalices, vessels for water and wine used during Communion and other sacred items.

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The double doors into the sacristy were closed but the lock had been jimmied and smoke had just begun to seep through the cracks around the doorway, according to Father Carles.

“I opened the door and the room was full of smoke,” he said.

One fire was lit above a sink, using a roll of paper towels affixed to a wall cabinet above the sink. Towels had also been torn from the roll and bunched up in the sink basin and ignited.

Inside the cabinet were several chalices, used by priests to dispense hosts to worshippers during mass. None were damaged.

The underside of the cabinet and the wall behind the sink were scorched and burned by the flames.

The priest was easily able to extinguish that fire with water from the tap.

The second fire was set on a rack affixed to a wall, using a cincture, a long, rope-like cord with a knotted end worn by priests beneath their vestments. It had been removed from a nearby closet. The cincture did not burn well, but it did leave soot marks on the wall.

Father Carles said renovations, including a new carpet, had just been completed in the sacristy.

“Thankfully, the rug wasn’t damaged,” he said.

Police and fire officials were called and evidence collected. The Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office has also been notified.

Efforts to contact local officials on New Year’s Day were unsuccessful.

Monsignor Seamus Brennan, pastor of the Roman Catholic church, and Father Carles relayed the incident to parishioners during several masses on New Year’s Day.

Roman Catholics celebrate Jan. 1 as a Holy Day, recognizing Mary’s divine Motherhood and the naming of Jesus.

“Yes, people are upset, you don’t expect these kinds of things to happen, but we are hopeful and praying that something good comes from it,” Father Carles said prior to celebrating the 2 p.m. Spanish language Mass.

Earlier this year a two-alarm fire damaged the roof of the church. A workman’s blow torch caused the fire to ignite accidentally while repairs were being made. The interior of the church suffered smoke and water damage.

Another fire in 1965 destroyed the parish’s former church that was located on High Street. The parish raised money and built the new church which opened in 1973 adjacent to the grammar school.

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