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‘Disturbingly violent’ vandalism can’t break spirit of Fort Worth church

Churchgoers walk past a broken pot as they enter St. Stephen Presbyterian Church for a vigil Sunday afternoon.
Churchgoers walk past a broken pot as they enter St. Stephen Presbyterian Church for a vigil Sunday afternoon. rrodriguez@star-telegram.com

Windows were shattered and furniture was busted. Books had been ripped apart, and food and containers had been stacked on a stove and torched.

While shaken by the acts of vandalism, staff and members of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church remained strong in their faith Sunday.

A vandal or vandals broke into the education building of the century-old church early Sunday, forcing church officials to cancel morning services.

Vandals caused serious damage to the church, which is near the TCU campus, early Sunday morning.

But the congregation came together for a special service at the church Sunday afternoon.

“God is with us in times of trial as well as good times,” the Rev. Dr. Frederick “Fritz” Ritsch III told the crowd of about 300 gathered at the vigil. “We will continue our mission. We will be stronger because of this crisis.”

The break-in occurred about 4:30 a.m. at the church, 2700 McPherson Ave., near the Texas Christian University campus.

Fort Worth police said the call came in as a burglary and numerous police cars quickly arrived at St. Stephen, where officers noticed smoke coming from the church building, said Daniel Segura, police spokesman.

We will continue our mission. We will be stronger because of this crisis.

Rev. Dr. Frederick “Fritz” Ritsch III

Fort Worth Fire Department officials are investigating the incident as arson, said Lt. Kyle Falkner.

“There are obvious signs that someone intended to start a fire,” Falkner said. “It looks like it was found early enough.”

Police did not know if the vandalism was the act of one or more, but a preliminary report indicated that a witness told police about seeing a man running toward McCart Avenue, not far from the church.

Ritsch said it is hard to understand what would motivate someone to do such damage.

“This is disturbingly violent and uncomfortable,” Ritsch said after the service. “But this is a congregation that pulls together in crisis.”

His wife, Margaret Ritsch, said the destruction was so vile that “it was as if someone was consumed with rage.”

“It’s hard to imaging a motive for vandalism at this scale, at this level,” she said.

Longtime church member Jack Hunnicutt said he was overwhelmed by the depth of destruction.

“It’s heartbreaking, but seeing the sanctuary in perfect condition makes up for it a lot,” Hunnicutt said.

Our homeless folks are good people. They are just down on their luck.

Jack Hunnicut, church member

Beth Fultz, director of Christian education, said she believes the vandalism was a message: “We don’t like you. We’re mad and you’re going to be an example.”

St. Stephen is more than 100 years old and has served the city — including the homeless — for years, according to the church website.

In 2007, St. Stephen and Broadway Baptist Church co-founded the Room In the Inn ministry. It has since grown to about 20 churches, which provide shelter to the homeless during the hottest and coldest months of the year.

Church members do not think the vandalism was committed by any of those they serve.

“Our homeless folks are good people. They are just down on their luck,” Hunnicut said.

Domingo Ramirez Jr.: 817-390-7763, @mingoramirezjr

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