Ocala parish damaged by crash and fire

FBI investigating after man drives car through church doors and starts fire

ORLANDO  |  Early Saturday morning, July 11, 2020, a man crashed his van through the doors of Queen of Peace Parish. Once inside, the church’s pastor says the man set the interior of the church ablaze and drove off.

Father Patrick O’Doherty, pastor of the Ocala parish for more than 33 years, was taking a stroll around the property, preparing for the upcoming morning Mass.

“I was walking around about at a quarter of eight when a white van drove into the front door, broke the door down. The driver exited the vehicle and entered farther into the church. When he came out, a fireball came out behind him,” Father O’Doherty said, adding he heard no explosive sounds. “I was 10 feet away from him. Luckily, Mass hadn’t began yet and the pews weren’t packed. There was about five individuals in there, saying their rosaries before Mass.”

Photo courtesy Marion County Sheriff’s office

There were no injuries reported. In reaction to the incident, the parish may make further security adjustments in the future. The church is already equipped with cameras and yellow barriers in the parking lot for designating the flow of traffic, an obstacle, Father O’Doherty said, the suspect ignored when navigating towards the doors of the church.

Our Lady Queen of Peace first celebrated Mass in 1984, established as a mission of Blessed Trinity Parish in Ocala. Father O’Doherty was tapped as pastor in 1987. The Irish-born priest was ordained in 1970 in Thurles, Ireland. The parish’s sanctuary was dedicated and blessed in 1993, constructed to replace an all-purpose building that was erected in 1986. In a 1993 article covering the dedication, Father O’Doherty described the new church as being built for the glory and honor of God with a gold cross atop a gold dome outside, crucifix-shaped floor plan, and an 80-foot high stained-glass image of the crucified Christ over the altar which separates the main sanctuary from the daily chapel.

“The building hopefully will remind us not to go the way of the world in our preaching and living and avoiding unpopular subjects like the cross, sin, hell and Satan,” said Father O’Doherty in the interview.

Now, 27 years later, the nation and world are facing turmoil on multiple fronts. When asked about his reaction to the event, Father O’Doherty said although saddened, he wasn’t surprised, taking into account COVID-19 infections rising at a geometric rate daily and political turmoil engulfing nearly every conversation.

“I knew this could happen in this political and religious climate,” he said.

Photo courtesy Marion County Sheriff’s office

Father O’Doherty said he isn’t sure if the suspect was a disgruntled parishioner, but added a parishioner “had claimed that she saw the suspect’s van many times in the parking lot in the last three months.”

According to police reports, the suspect, Anthony Steven Shields, 24,  was apprehended by police after a chase. Church video shows the suspect pouring gasoline into the foyer area of the church and igniting the blaze by hurling a lit shoe onto the gasoline.

Shields, of Dunnellon, quickly fled the scene in his van, crashing into other vehicles, and evaded Marion County police until Deputy Josue Gonzalez was able to force Shields’ van to a halt using the PIT maneuver (Precision Immobilization Technique). Shields was apprehended and taken into custody immediately on South Highway 441. He currently resides in Marion County jail being held without bail.

“Our freedom of worship granted in the Constitution is a freedom that we all hold dear,” Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said in a statement. “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.”

Photo courtesy Marion County Sheriff’s office

Shields has been charged with a slew of felony charges including attempted second-degree murder, arson to a structure, and felony fleeing or attempting to elude, and several more.

The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are working together in their investigations.

“We praise God that no one was injured,” said Jennifer Drow, senior director of communications for the Diocese of Orlando. “We join in prayer for Father O’Doherty, the parishioners of Queen of Peace Catholic Church, our first responders and the gentleman who caused the damage. May we come to know the Peace of the Lord.”

Masses at Queen of Peace will be held in the parish hall in the interim, as the church building is closed during the investigation. Even though his parishioners may be frightened and confused, Father O’Doherty wants his parishioners to know that they are all in his prayers. “I am here, always,” he said.

By Maurice Beaulieu of the Florida Catholic, July 12, 2020