A nearly 150-year-old church near Merritt was destroyed by a suspicious fire on the morning of Friday, Jan. 11; one of four acts of arson and/or vandalism at Merritt-area churches within a two to two-and-a-half hour span.
The historic Murray United Church on Highway 5A in the Nicola Valley was built in 1876, and was completely destroyed. The Crossroads Community Church on Voght Street in Merritt was also damaged by fire on the morning of the 11th, with police saying that someone broke into the church and started a fire in a back room.
The front door of All Saints Anglican Church on the Scw’exmx (Shackan) Reserve in the Nicola Valley was broken down and someone attempted to start a fire, but it did not take hold. A gas can was thrown through a window of the Roman Catholic Church on the reserve, which had not been used for several years, but the fire was able to be contained.
The Crossroads fire was also quickly contained, and no significant damage was caused. However, Merritt Fire Rescue Department Capt. Carl Johnston said the single-room Murray United Church was engulfed in flames by the time crews arrived, and the structure could not be saved. A neighbour said that the wooden structure burned to the ground in less than an hour. All that was left of it was the chimney and the church’s bell.
Johnston said the cause of the fires is under investigation, and the RCMP have taken over the files.
RCMP Const. Tracy Dunsmore said the Crossroads fire was a confirmed case of arson, but officers were still gathering information at the other sites. They have appealed to the public for help.
“[Four] churches … and there (are) definite arson signs there, so we are looking for any information,” says Dunsmore. Arson at a church is considered to be a hate crime.
Murray United Church—the first Protestant church in the Interior of B.C.—was the oldest building in the Nicola Valley, and the only building still standing made with locally grown and milled Nicola Valley lumber. Like Zion United Church in Ashcroft, it began life as a Presbyterian Church, and became a United Church in 1927. It was named after the Revd. Mr. George Murray, a Presbyterian minister who arrived in the Nicola Valley in 1875.
Regular services had not been held at the church since 1957, although Easter Sunday and Christmas services were still held on occasion; the most recent service was at Christmas 2018. The church was also available for weddings, and within the last few years hosted two quilt shows and a chamber music concert.
Last year Trinity United Church in Merritt, which oversees the site, received funds to refurbish Murray United Church, including replacig the stained-glass windows and reinforcing the bell tower so that the historic bell—donated to the church by former Social Credit MLA George Massey—could be safely rung. For the past three summers, students were on hand to provide tours of the building and explain its history to visitors, with some 600 visitors coming through the building during the two months a year it was open.
A pump organ, records stretching back for several decades, and a plan of the cemetery were among the items lost. A granite plaque commemorating those buried in the cemetery whose gravesite is unknown was spared, as was the cemetery itself. The bell will be recovered, but it has not yet been decided if Murray United Church will be rebuilt.
Anyone with information related to any of the incidents is urged to contact Merritt RCMP at (250) 378-4262 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).
With files from the Canadian Press