Arson suspect caught

LEIGHTON KEITH
Last updated 05:00 07/01/2014
DAILY NEWS ONLINE

Police and fire investigators are at the scene of the fire which gutted the St Philomena's Catholic Church.

Fire at New Plymouth church

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LATEST: A New Plymouth woman has been arrested and charged with the arson of St Philomena's Catholic Church.

The fire brigade was alerted to the blaze, which was being treated as suspicious, in the Brooklands Rd church at 2.50pm yesterday.

Detective Sergeant Gerard Bouterey confirmed a 59-year-old woman had been arrested and charged on Monday night.

''She was found through assistance and information obtained from the public,'' Mr Bouterey said.

The woman, who was known to police, was today released on bail by the New Plymouth District Court to reappear on January 29.

Mr Bouterey said it was pleasing to make a quick arrest in the case.

Father Craig Butler said the blaze had been a real shock to the wider Catholic community.

Messages of support had been received from as far away as the United Kingdom and India, he said.

''We are very grateful for the support of the wider community and just the expressions of concern.''

A prayer service will be held at the church at 5.30pm today.

Yesterday crowds of people lined the street as flames leapt from the church's roof, windows exploded and firefighters battled to bring the blaze under control.

Taranaki assistant area manager John Nicholls said the fire was being treated as suspicious and its cause would be investigated by fire safety officers.

Mr Nicholls said the fire was well alight when firefighters got there.

"Flames were clearly visible from the roof as we arrived," Mr Nicholls said.

Father Butler told the Taranaki Daily News he felt a range of emotions when he heard the news.

"Shock, sadness but a great sense of relief that nobody was hurt," Father Butler said.

"I feel pretty devastated really."

He said the building had celebrated its jubilee in September and generations of families had worshipped there.

"Many have been baptised there and weddings and funerals, so it's a very sad day for our community.

"Our church was a much-loved place for people to gather. It is a sacred place and it does hold a lot of memories for people."

Father Butler said the parish was grateful to the fire brigade for preventing further damage.

St Pius principal Trish Walsh was on holiday when she heard the tragic news.

"I'm devastated, it's a very sad day," Miss Walsh said.

She said the school's library was in the back of the church and had been destroyed by the blaze.

The school also used the church for its morning prayers and assemblies.

"Our school is incredibly close to the parish,," she said.

"At the moment we want to do everything we can to support the parish."

Mr Nicholls said firefighters attacked the blaze, which was being fanned by strong winds, with high-pressure hoses from the outside.

"The winds were very strong, blowing smoke and debris across the road, again that is why we maintained an external attack."

At the height of the blaze 26 firefighters and six fire engines were at the scene.

Firefighters remained at the scene until about 9pm.

Neighbour Debbie McGregor said she first knew something was wrong when she saw a line of cars stopped, out of her window.

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"Then I saw the smoke coming out of the top of the church," Ms McGregor said.

She said it appeared the fire had caught hold of the building very quickly.

Joe Holden said he couldn't believe it as he watched the church burn. "I went to mass here as a little boy, I grew up going to church here," he said.

"I've attended a lot of weddings, a lot of funerals, a lot of life and said a lot of prayers there."

William Johnston said he had attended mass at the church at Christmas.

"To see it going up in flames is pretty sad," Mr Johnston said.

He said his grandparents had regularly attended the church on Sundays.

- Taranaki Daily News

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