KAMLOOPS — Religious communities in Merritt are on alert after two churches in the community were set on fire overnight.
The Crossroads Community Church suffered minor damage, while the historic Murray United Church, which was 142 years old, burned to the ground. It's tragic news for members of the recently-revived Murray Church.
"I'm just devastated this morning," said church member Dorothy Jordan, who's lived in the Nicola Valley for 11 years. "4 o'clock this morning I heard and came down and it's gone. Just feels like a little part of the community is gone."
Built in 1876, it was the oldest building in the Nicola Valley. It hadn't been used until 2015 when the church was beautified through a Canada 150 grant, hosting its first Christmas Eve service in more than 50 years. The fire leaves behind many memories for people who were part of the church.
"Very fond ones," said the church's board chair Linda Baird. "All the hours spent out here with lots of different people, Dorothy, cleaning head stones, washing windows, talking to visitors from all over the world during the summer when it was open."
Baird, who played the church's ancient pump organ, said some of the international visitors came to visit family graves on the property.
"We had people from Arizona, from South Africa, England and Ireland who found ancestors who were buried here. They had no idea," she noted.
Prior to discovering the Murray United Church fire, Merritt Fire Rescue crews were responding to the crossroads community church on Voght Street, where a blaze broke out around two in the morning.
"Bewilderment, shock. This is a church, but for us it's a second home," said associate pastor Sherry Peterson. "Many people consider this like home. A lot of different programs run out of here during the week. It feels like a personal hit when it happens to a church."
It was while emergency personnel were working on the fire at the Crossroads Community Church that they received another phone call, notifying them of the fire happening at the Murray United Church. Both incidents took place within the hour.
The investigation has been handed over to Merritt RCMP who are calling both fires suspicious and likely related.
"We'll be doing some neighbourhood inquiries. We will be looking for video and then we're asking public if anyone saw anything suspicious, vehicle, any social media content that may have some kind of vendetta, something against one of the churches, or any church in particular," said Cst. Tracy Dunsmore. "Just anything they think is suspicious, thtey can call RCMP."
Lower Nicola Indian Band chief Aaron Sumexheltza confirms with CFJC Today there was an attempted arson at one of the two churches on the reserve near Merritt. He says both churches were broken into last night before one was nearly set on fire.
RCMP have notified other churches in Merritt to be aware of the potential for other such fires in the community.
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