Police: 42-year-old man accused of setting fires inside Our Lady of the Lake church in Verona

Officials say that this is the second time in less than a year that Elliot Bennett targeted this church.

Amanda Eustice

Apr 4, 2024, 9:38 PM

Updated 52 days ago


Bells tolled at the top of the hour, as parishioners like Joanne Fitzgerald were getting ready for the start of noon Mass at Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic Church in Verona.
But to her surprise, she showed up only to find the church doors wide open and caution tape blocking the entrance.
"I went back to where I usually park, it was blocked off,” she says. “I'm very sad to hear there was damage here.”
The Essex County Prosecutor's Office says just after 3:30 a.m. Thursday, 42-year-old Elliot Bennett intentionally set multiple fires inside the church. Several pews, statues and the alter were damaged.
Bennett faces several charges, including bias intimidation, burglary, aggravated arson and unlawful possession of a weapon.
Officials say this isn't the first time he's been arrested for vandalizing Our Lady of the Lake church. He allegedly damaged a statue on the property this past September.
"His parents are nice people, but there's something wrong and something really needs to be done. I know a lot of our neighbors are very upset and they're not happy with what's going on here," said churchgoer Frank Sapienza.
"No church or synagogue or any place of active worship should be disgraced like this," said parishioner Thomas Frawley.
The pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church, just around the corner, is offering his support by allowing the congregation to host Masses and services in their house of worship, until repairs are made.
"Worship spaces are supposed to be places of sanctuary and peace and this sort of the thing shakes you to the core and makes you feel unsafe in a place where you go because you need a break from the rest of the week," said Pastor Anthony Giordano, of Calvary Lutheran Church.
It's still unclear exactly when parishioners will be able to return to the church.
The Archdiocese of Newark says information about this weekend's masses and services is posted on the Our Lady of the Lake's website.

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