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Fire damages Virgin Mary statue at St. Petersburg Catholic High School

Published Feb. 7, 2012

The Virgin Mary statue in front of St. Petersburg Catholic High School has obvious spiritual significance. But to many in the school community, it's historically important too.

So when Vivi Iglesias heard it had been damaged in a weekend fire, she said, "My heart sunk to the bottom of my stomach."

"It was like somebody hurting me," said Iglesias, a longtime volunteer at the school and mother of three graduates.

The fire was intentionally set in the grotto that housed the statue, but there is no evidence yet it was a hate crime, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz. He said police found candy wrappers at the base of the statue.

"I know from past experience it's not always done because of an attack on a religion, it's done as a prank," he said. "If it's juveniles, they often don't make the connection to the emotional damage they do to folks."

The fire blackened parts of the statue, charred tiles in the grotto and melted wires for lighting. One of the statue's hands is missing. Puetz said school officials estimated the damage at $500 to $700.

"I wouldn't say it's necessarily ruined," said principal John McMahon. "But it will take some doing to get it cleaned up and see what the real, permanent damage is."

McMahon said the statue's history goes back to the mid 1960s, when girls at Notre Dame Academy bought it as a gift for their school. The academy and Bishop Barry High School, then an all-boys school, merged to become St. Petersburg Catholic High School in 1973.

The statue and grotto were moved to the St. Petersburg Catholic site six or seven years ago, when the academy buildings were torn down.

The school was not in session Monday, so many students won't know what happened until they return today, McMahon said. "I think they're going to take it really hard," he said. "It's not just a building that was vandalized."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.