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Columbus Church Heavily Damaged by Arsonist

Fire officials say arson is the cause of an early-morning blaze that destroyed part of St. Mary's Macedonian American Orthodox Church on the east side of Columbus. The church's offices were gutted while the interior of the adjoining sanctuary was heavily damaged.

A group of grim-faced parishioners, talking among themselves in the Slavic Macedonian language, watched from a distance as fire investigators carried smoldering furniture out the front door of St. Mary's Church on Napoleon Avenue. City fire investigators and federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms arranged the ruined contents outside looking for traces of evidence. According to congregation officers Joseph Hristovski and Alekso Murtanovski, the pre-dawn blaze followed a string of recent break-ins.

"We have never had any problem before til recently, in the last two months."

"This is our fifth break-in. They're looking for petty cash."

But priceless to the people of the 100 member congregation were religious icons of the church's namesake,St. Mary, used for worship on Sundays and holy days. The priest at St. Mary's said one was made in the 1600s. Columbus investigator Mike DeFrancisco says most of the church sustained smoke and water damage, but the offices were a total loss.

"There's a lot of fire damage in the church, the actual sanctuary does have smoke damage but there's not a whole lot of fire damage in that area," DeFrancisco says. "Will they be able to recover their religious artifacts? I'm not sure if they'll be recoverable or not."

A part of the church roof was destroyed and several of the sanctuary's stained-glass windows were broken out. Later several parish officers and the priest were accompanied through the building to assess the damage first-hand. Joe Hristovski came out briefly holding his head in his hands before going back inside.

Damage may surpass $500,000, but he and Alekso Murtanovski say the damage to the congregants is immeasurable.

"It means a lot. This building [has been our church] for 40-plus years. And to lose it in a half an hour is a big loss."

"It's a very sad day for our community."

Columbus fire investigator Mike DeFrancisco says fingerprints that might belong to a suspect have been recovered. Officials are also looking for a person they think may have been a witness to the Wednesday morning burglary and arson.