Police and residents of the Norwegian coastal city of Grimstad were dealing this week with a grim and highly disturbing attack on their oldest building, the Fjære Church that dates back to 1150. A local resident in his 40s has admitted to the destruction that brought many to tears.
“This really hurts, it’s so difficult,” Pastor Helge Spilling told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), adding that he was trying hard to put the past few days behind him.
“People here are taking this personally,” Spilling added. “They have had many memorable experiences in the church, with christenings, weddings and funerals. And it’s Grimstad’s oldest building. It means a lot to people.”
The destruction carried out heading into the weekend was more than just vandalism. The man broke into the church without setting off alarms that are in place and launched attacks on the altar, the baptismal font, the pulpit, the small painted wooden doors leading into pews, and chandeliers. He was arrested Friday evening outside the church.
He also pried open a trap door under the church floor that leads to a crypt containing mummified remains dating back to the 1600s. That adds to the charges against the man, “and makes the entire case even more serious,” Alexander Paul, the kirkeverge in charge of maintenance and preservation at the thousand-year-old church.
Relics from the 1200 have also been severely damaged or destroyed. Prosecutor Hanna Nilsen said the assailant’s targets “were all of high value, both religiously and for the nation.”
Evelyn Tønnesen was among those visiting family graves lying around the church, and cried when she spoke with NRK. “This is so painful,” she said. “So many memories are tied to Fjære Church. Hope and faith are tied to the building, it’s not just made of stone.”
The head of Norway’s national Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Riksantikvar) noted that Norwegian churches from the end of the Viking Age and through the Middles Ages are among the country’s most important buildings. “This is terribly sad, and a very serious case,” Hanna Geiran told NRK. Specially trained preservationists from her office traveled to Grimstad to inspect the damage and start advising on repairs. On Tuesday afternoon they confirmed massive damage, but believe much of it can be repaired.
“Fjære Church is an important building in itself,” Geiran said, “but it was also full of valuable art and church inventory from the 1600-1700s.”
Officials at the church, which is now closed, confirmed that the baptismal font from the 1300s had been tipped over and hacked up in sections. Vases have been smashed, the entry aisles’ carpet ripped up, two psalmbooks set on fire and a glass plate at the alter from the 1500s shattered. They claim it didn’t appear the attacker used any special weapons or other items, but rather “used his hands.”
The man in custody has a police record. There was no information as to what his motives may have been.