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´╗┐Arson suspected in Whitby church fire

Close to one hundred Christmas hampers for needy families have gone up in flames in a suspicious fire that gutted a historic church in downtown Whitby early Monday.

The fire at All Saints Anglican Church followed two acts of vandalism there in the past few months, Rev. Beverley Williams said.

Smoke was belching from the top window of the church, on Dundas St. near Brock St, until midmorning. The steeple remained standing but the roof was nearly destroyed, with debris scattered up to 300 metres away.

hundred families were counting on us for Christmas, said Williams as parishioners turned up to watch in horror.

The church, which was built in 1866, also ran Whitby only food bank, but Williams was hopeful that area was spared.

Fire officials say it will be at least a day before investigators can safely enter the remains of the church, but police have confirmed that the fire is being treated as a possible crime scene.

has been some suspicious evidence found at the scene, said Durham Regional Police Sgt. Nancy van Rooy. investigating the criminal element, specifically arson. He said he noticed a large red gas can leaning against the foundation near the north end of the building.

was not there yesterday when I closed up the building, said Collins. Sunday afternoon a few hours after the Sunday service had finished.

Three plain windows in the front of the church were shattered in early fall by someone throwing concrete, said Williams. Three weeks ago, a wooden sign outside the church had been pulled down and smeared with mud, she said.

hard for me to believe one person could do all of this, that one person could have such a hatred toward the church said Williams.

This morning, the first people onscene found a jerry can of gasoline lying near the north wall of the church.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services at the church will be cancelled for the 200 parishioners, said Williams, as will a scheduled New Year Eve wedding.

The interior of the heavily damaged church was wood, said Williams, and its stained glass windows were destroyed.

Just yesterday, the church rang its bells 350 times in support of efforts to control climate change, the minister said.

Local MP Jim Flaherty and his wife, Whitby MPP Christine Elliott, spent about 15 minutes at the scene at midmorning, talking to fellow parishioners. An emotional Elliott hugged Williams, who said generations of worshippers had been baptized, married and buried at All Saints which sits in the centre of Whitby.

Firefighters at midmorning were still dousing hot spots in the church, while police rerouted traffic around the scene. after both the church security company and a snow removal service reported the fire.

No one was injured in the building, though one firefighter suffered a minor injury.

Shawna Coulter, fire prevention officer with Whitby Fire and Emergency Services, confirmed the church suffered extensive damage.

roof is partially collapsed, and the peak of the church is gone, Coulter said. can only see the exposed rafters at the very top of the church.