The Salem Police Department has determined that the intense fire that devastated a historic Oregon Catholic church early Thursday morning was arson and announced that the suspect has been arrested.

The suspect, Billy James Sweeten, 48, is currently in police custody at Marion County Jail.

According to a Salem Police Department Thursday press release, the Aug. 31 fire, which destroyed the sanctuary of St. Joseph Church in Salem, Oregon, began in a garbage bin on the church property.

The flames from the bin quickly spread to the roof of the church causing catastrophic damage to the church sanctuary.

Within an hour of the Salem Fire Department arriving on the scene at approximately 2:30 a.m., additional assistance was requested as the fire had escalated to “four-alarm status,” which is a particularly intense fire warranting significant response. The fire was upgraded to five-alarm status later in the morning.

One parish priest had to be evacuated from the grounds by firefighters but, according to the police release, he was not harmed.

Firefighters worked for hours to quell the flames, successfully putting out the fire in the late morning but not before irreversible damage had been done to the church building.

Speaking to reporters from Fox 12 Oregon early Thursday morning, St. Joseph’s pastor, Father Jeff Meeuwsen, said “the church building is pretty much a loss.”

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“I’m very sad that we lost the church building, very sad,” Meeuswen said. “But the church also isn’t just a building, it’s a people. The people of St. Joseph will pull together.”

Founded in 1853, St. Joseph’s in Salem is one of the oldest parish communities in Oregon. The current church was built in 1953. It is one of eight parishes in the Archdiocese of Portland that offers the Traditional Latin Mass. 

Police determine fire caused by arson

Angela Hedrick, a public information officer with the Salem Police Department, confirmed with CNA that the fire was caused by arson and that Sweeten is currently being lodged in Marion County Jail. 

The police press release said that “due to suspicious circumstances of the fire, arson detectives from the Salem Police Felony Crimes Unit responded to the scene for the investigation, resulting in the arrest of Billy James Sweeten.” 

Sweeten is currently facing first-degree arson charges. First-degree arson is a Class A felony in Oregon. 

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Hedrick told CNA that due to county policy, she could not comment further on Sweeten’s motives for starting the fire. She said the case is now in the hands of the local district attorney.

Brendan Murphy, deputy district attorney for Marion County, declined to comment on the case, stating Oregon law prohibited him from doing so.

According to the Salem Reporter, Sweeten “has a lengthy criminal history with convictions dating back to 1994.” 

The Salem Reporter also said that as recently as Aug. 24 he was charged with unlawful entry into a motor vehicle and second-degree criminal mischief. He failed to appear for his arraignment scheduled on Aug. 28.

Sweeten has previously been charged with arson after setting fire to a woman’s house in 2021, though the charges were dismissed as part of a plea deal, according to the Salem Reporter.

Over 300 celebrate Mass outside burned church

Douglas Markwell, communications director for the Archdiocese of Portland, told CNA that more than 300 faithful from the parish community gathered for a Mass in the parking lot the day of the fire. The mass was celebrated by Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample.

“In his homily,” Markwell said, “the archbishop expressed his joy at seeing the outpouring of support from the community. He reminded the crowd huddling under umbrellas and tents that the fire may have burned the building, but the Church is her people, and we are intact and thriving.” 

Markwell shared a link for a St. Joseph fire relief fund established by the Archdiocese of Portland.