The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said Steven Shields, 24, crashed his van into the doors of the Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala on Saturday morning. Shields then got out, poured gasoline on the ground, and set it on fire, officials said.
Shields drove away after the incident but was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy, the office said.
“The parishioners were able to escape without injury and Marion County Fire Rescue personnel were able to quickly extinguish the fire,” said the sheriff’s office.
Shields was charged with attempted second-degree murder, one count of arson to a structure, burglary of an occupied structure, and other crimes. He is being held in a local jail without bond.
Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said, “Our freedom of worship granted in the Constitution is a freedom that we all hold dear. My deputies and I are sworn to protect that right and will always ensure our citizens can worship in peace. I’m proud of my deputies for capturing this man so quickly and we appreciate the assistance from all of the state and federal agencies that worked alongside of us during this investigation.”
According to an arrest affidavit, Shields told investigators that what he did was “awesome” and laughed while admitting to setting the church on fire, reported the Ocala Star-Banner. Shields added that he is a “king” and is on a “mission,” saying he has problems with the Catholic church.
He also said he suffers from schizophrenia and wasn’t taking his medication, the affidavit said.
The paper reported that the church’s foyer was damaged, but Mass was still celebrated on Saturday evening.
Pastor Steven Smith, who has a church across the street, told WCJB: “That kind of really concerns me the fact that he’s young and to have that much hatred or that idea to do something of that magnitude at such a young age that’s concerning. But we have to constantly keep him in prayer and pray that he can get through this with the help of the almighty God.”
Meanwhile, a fire early Saturday destroyed the rooftop and most of the interior of a Catholic church in California that was undergoing renovation to mark its upcoming 250th-anniversary celebration.
Fire alarms at the San Gabriel Mission rang around 4 a.m. When firefighters arrived, they saw smoke rising from the wooden rooftop in one corner of the historic structure, San Gabriel Fire Capt. Paul Negrete said.
Firefighters entered the church and tried to beat back the flames, but they had to retreat when roofing and other structural materials began to fall, Negrete said.
And in Alabama on Friday, first responders were called to the Faith Tabernacle Pentecostal Church in Limestone County after a section caught on fire, according to reports.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.