St John the Evangelist’s female vicar had suffered sexist harassment during church services in the weeks before the fire on New Year’s Day, reports James Cracknell
Police have confirmed that a fire at a church in Palmers Green last month is being treated as arson – and could also be a hate crime.
The blaze at St John the Evangelist was tackled by London Fire Brigade on the afternoon of New Year’s Day and was later said by the vicar, Reverend Julie Coleman, as having caused “extensive damage”.
Last week Rev Coleman allowed the Dispatch to photograph the aftermath of the fire inside the church and revealed that one of the suspects in the ongoing police investigation is someone who had been harassing her at church services in the run-up to Christmas, making repeated misogynistic comments.
The fire had been started beside the pulpit “in the most sacred part of the church” where weddings, baptisms and funerals take place, with some kind of flammable liquid likely being used.
While the fire did not spread far beyond this area, smoke damage is visible all over the church, including on the stained glass windows. It will require extensive cleaning, using scaffolding – at a cost of tens of thousands.
While the Metropolitan Police has confirmed the fire is being investigated as arson, they have not yet confirmed whether it is also a hate crime.
Rev Coleman said: “We serve all faiths and don’t turn people away, but it is unbelievable that someone has come in and done this and then sat and watched it burn.
“I think people need to know this was an arson attack – we need to look after each other.”
No arrests have been made by police but one of the lines of enquiry is that a man was frequently attending and then interrupting church services around the Christmas period, making sexist and hateful comments towards Rev Coleman and others. While not violent, he needed to be escorted from the premises on several occasions.
Rev Coleman had not reported these incidents to police prior to the fire. She said: “Unfortunately hate crimes are not new to me as a female vicar. But to have this is something else […] it is a concern that he is still out there, but my main aim is to rebuild – what else can you do?”
A Met Police spokesperson said: “Officers are following up a number of lines of enquiry. We are not discussing further at this stage. The arson is not linked to any matter previously reported to police.”
The church – built in 1904 to serve the growing Church of England parish of Palmers Green – had been refurbished at a cost of £25,000 some 18 months before the blaze, restoring many of its original features.
Since the fire, regular services have been moved to the adjacent church hall, which has around half the capacity. While the fire damage itself will be covered by insurance, the inability to hold big events such as funerals and weddings is now costing the church around £2,000 per week.
St John the Evangelist runs a weekly foodbank, serving more than 400 people; tragically much of the stock was destroyed by the fire as it was kept in a storage area near where it started. The church also hosts a women’s refuge and supports victims of sex trafficking.
Rev Coleman describes the church as “built for the community to serve the community”.
Detective Inspector Mike Herrick, who is investigating, said: “We are treating this as arson, and we are carrying out a thorough investigation.
“It could be that without knowing it, local people saw something significant. If you were around the area of the church on New Year’s Day and you saw anything suspicious., please call us without delay.
“This is a horrible attack on a place of worship. At this time, we are keeping an open mind about the motive.”
Anyone who has information which could help officers is asked to contact police on 101 quoting CAD4733o1jan. You can also give information anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.