Wildwood Baptist Church in Bethesda. Credit: Photos by Dan Schere

This story was updated at 2:40 p.m. on July 12, 2022, to include comments from Pastor Samuel Giese

The pastor of one of three churches vandalized over the weekend along Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda says a dozen cemetery headstones were damaged, in some cases beyond repair.

The headstones were from a historic cemetery at Wildwood Baptist Church, which was vandalized along with North Bethesda United Methodist Church and St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, according to authorities.

Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service spokesman Pete Piringer had posted Sunday on Twitter that investigators found “debris” and headstones in the road in the 10200 block of Old Georgetown Road, near the Wildwood Baptist Church.

Wildwood Pastor David Sayne told Bethesda Beat in an interview Monday that police first contacted him when it was discovered that a wooden cross on the edge of the church property at 10200 Old Georgetown Road had been thrown into the road.

Sayne said about a dozen headstones were smashed, many of which will need to be replaced.

“Some of these stones will just have to be stood back up, some of them will have to be repaired, some will have to be replaced,” he said. “And I have no idea what it even costs, but I’m gonna take a wild guess and say it’s got to be at least $10,000.”

Sayne said the church will need to contact the families to make arrangements for the stones that must be replaced.

“Whoever did this, we’re praying for them. We forgive them. We hold no grudges against them,” he said. “We’re sorry that they felt they have to express themselves this way. But this kind of violence is just not acceptable in any form.”

Sayne said the cemetery is about 160 years old and several notable families tied to the history of Montgomery County are buried there, including members of the Veirs and Magruder families.

“This is very much a landmark and very much a historic site here in town,” he said.

At North Bethesda United Methodist Church at 10100 Old Georgetown Road, firefighters extinguished a small fire around 1:30 a.m. Saturday, according to Piringer. The church said in a statement to Bethesda Beat on Monday that damage was limited to the fellowship hall, kitchen and hallway. Volunteers cleaned up the building on Saturday and Sunday services were held as scheduled.

“We are saddened by these destructive acts, and we feel tinges of the heartache and fear that arise in communities of all types when a sacred space is desecrated,” the Rev. Kara Scroggins said in the statement. “We cannot know the hurt of the person or people who vandalized churches in our neighborhood, and so we lift their hurt and our own hurt up to God.

At St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish, about a mile south on Old Georgetown Road, a fire damaged several pews inside around 2 a.m. Sunday, according to Piringer. Masses were held in the gym on the property on Sunday. Rev. Samuel Giese said in a video of a service that he hoped to conduct services in the church for Mass next weekend, but weekday services would be held in the gym.

Giese told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that four pews, several religious items inside the church and an American flag were burned. Giese said the damage was “not terribly extensive” and that all of the items can be replaced.

“I don’t necessarily have a time frame for getting back in the church. Hopefully we’re going to do that as soon as possible,” he said.

Giese said the parish also held services in the gym for an extended period of time more than 20 years ago when the new church building was under construction. He said the acts of vandalism have not deterred the congregation from attending worship services.

“We’re fine. We’re in good shape. It’s obviously kind of a shock. A parish is a spiritual home for many people,” he said. “[An event such as this] galvanizes people. It makes them stronger in their faith.”

Motive unclear

The Montgomery County fire marshal’s office is leading the investigation into the acts of vandalism. Authorities have not said whether they believe the acts were hate crimes or provided a possible motive.

FBI spokeswoman Kim Howell wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Monday that the agency’s Baltimore office is “aware of the vandalism and has offered our assistance to local partners should they need it.”

Sayne told Bethesda Beat on Monday that following the vandalism at the church cemetery, he was contacted by both a state delegate and the U.S. Department of Justice. He said he believes that the national debate over abortion rights, which has ramped up following the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, might have been the motive for the attack.

Sayne said there is an abortion clinic across the street.

“Groups gather here from time to time for prayer and then go across the street to pray in front of that abortion clinic, so I have no doubt that this is connected to that,” he said. “My question is, why a cemetery? That makes no sense. That helps nobody’s cause.”

Giese also said he believes the vandalism at his church was related to the politics of the abortion debate and the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance, he told WTOP on Monday.

On Tuesday, Giese was more circumspect.

“We’ll have to wait for law enforcement to determine” what the motive is, he told Bethesda Beat.

Giese said he has been in touch with both police and the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, among others.

County Executive Marc Elrich, in a statement on Monday, called the attacks on the houses of worship “completely unacceptable.”

“The criminal activity that took place over the weekend does not represent the values of inclusion and equity that we are striving for in the communities of this County,” he said. “We pride ourselves on our diversity of religious communities. A hateful incident against one community impacts us all.”

Elrich added that the county has reached out to each congregation to see if they need assistance.

Meredith Weisel, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that although the motive is not yet known, it is always concerning when a house of worship is targeted, particularly three in one weekend.

“Houses of worship should be free from these sorts of acts and we’re grateful to see law enforcement investigating and taking it seriously,” she wrote.

Fire & Rescue Service asking for tips

Fire & Rescue Service investigators are asking anyone with information about the incidents to call the county’s arson tip line at 240-777-2263.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com