Overnight Fire At OLL

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The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office (ECPO) and Verona Police Department are investigating early morning arson at Our Lady of the Lake. A suspect who is a Verona resident has turned himself in to the VPD.

According to the ECPO, at about 3:33 a.m., the VPD were notifiedl that an alarm had been activated at the church. Responding officers observed heavy smoke and the Verona Fire Department responded. The fire was quickly extinguished.

“An investigation conducted by detectives from the Prosecutor’s Crime Scene Investigations Bureau and the Verona Police Department determined that the fire had multiple points origin and was deliberately set,” the ECPO said. Other sources indicate that several pews were damaged, along with books, kneelers and a few statues.

According the the ECPO, at about 4:30 a.m., a male, identified as Elliot Bennett, age 42, of Verona walked into the Verona Police headquarters. After investigation, Bennett was charged with first degree bias intimidation, second degree burglary, second degree aggravated arson, two counts of fourth degree unlawful possession of a weapon, two counts of third degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, possession of burglar’s tools and desecration of venerated objects, which are disorderly persons offenses.

Bennett is being held in the Essex County Correctional Facility pending a court appearance.

There was a wide response to the scene. The Verona Fire Department sent Engines 10, 11 and 14, and their crews, along with Truck 12. Firefighters from Cedar Grove, Montclair and Caldwell also responded to the scene.

“We are grateful for the efforts of the police, firefighters and first responders who were on the scene early this morning,” the Archdiocese of Newark said in a statement. Unfortunately, the church is heavily damaged, and the parish community is heartbroken. However, we have faith that we will get through this difficult time and request the community to keep those affected in their prayers. Further details regarding this weekend’s Masses and services will be announced soon on the parish website.” Our Lady of the Lake has not issued a separate statement.

Our Lady of the Lake Church and its school are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. Twelve years ago, several of the statues behind the church were damaged by a vandal, who turned himself in to the Verona Police Department. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there have been at least 315 acts of arson, vandalism and other damage at Catholic churches in 43 states and the District of Columbia since May 2020.

The charges against the defendant are merely allegations and he is presumed innocent at this time.

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