At the trial of Gregory Yusuke Shiga, accused of starting the Hacienda Heights’ conflagration that burnt St. John Vianney Church to the ground, Father Ricardo “Ricky” Viveros testified two hours for the prosecution. He was the associate pastor who awoke in his rectory bedroom to the sound of shattering glass in the early hours of April 16, 2011. Looking out an upstairs window, he saw flames engulfing the California mission-style church that Cardinal James Francis McIntrye had dedicated in November 1969. Earlier this month, Shiga, a 35-year-old parolee, was convicted of aggravated arson and four other related felony charges. As The Tidings went to press, Shiga faced up to life in prison for using rolls of toilet paper soaked in a flammable liquid to destroy the church. The San Gabriel Valley landmark off the 60 Freeway had a travertine marble altar, an enamel in-laid tabernacle and a large stained glass window depicting St. John Vianney, the famed Cure of Ars.While he was waiting in the hallway to testify during the two-week trial in Pomona, Father Viveros was taken aback when the arsonist’s sister approached him to ask, “Are you one of the priests at St. John Vianney?”“Yes, I am,” he said.Crying, the woman blurted out, “Father, I’m so sorry for what happened. Will you forgive me, us?”At first the priest couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. It was as if the Gospel was playing out right there in the courthouse. “We’ve been praying for your family since the night of the fire,” he said. “We want your brother to get to heaven. That’s what we hope for. And we hope that your family finds peace with it, too, because I know you must also be suffering.”He watched her face brighten with relief that the victims of her brother’s horrendous act felt more compassion than contempt towards her family.‘This chapter’s done’Father Viveros was also in the courtroom with St. John Vianney’s pastor, Msgr. Tim Nichols — who was away that terrible night, recovering from a severe fall — and about 10 members of the suburban parish for closing arguments. He heard the accused, who represented himself, try to justify his actions by saying the Catholic Church had done “bad things.” He also heard Deputy L.A. County District Attorney Renee Rose counter with the argument that the defendant, like many arsonists, according to social scientists, was really seeking attention. But law enforcement authorities never did pin down a clear motive. On July 9 when Shiga was convicted on all five counts, which included second-degree commercial burglary, the priest — who as a seminarian interned at the Hacienda Heights parish and calls it “my second home” — felt an overriding sense of abatement.“I think we’re relieved that justice happened,” he told The Tidings. “And we’re more relieved than anything that we can put this behind us and just completely focus on the rebuilding of our church now. It was like, ‘OK, this chapter’s done. Now we can move on to a more positive chapter and parish history.’“And I felt the weight of the world was lifted off of me,” he added with a chuckle. “You know, I was the guy in the rectory that night who discovered the fire. So it brought closure for me, personally: ‘Let’s move on now.’”Six-hour infernoShiga, then 33, broke into St. John Vianney Church at 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road a little past midnight on that April Saturday. He placed rolls of flammable-soaked toilet paper throughout the church, used a device to saturate the walls and ceiling with an accelerant, and even opened windows to create a draft for the fire. The result was it turned into a roaring inferno in under 50 seconds. Los Angeles County firefighters battled the stubborn blaze for more than six hours with flames reaching 100 feet high from the 20,000-plus square foot sanctuary. The fire also damaged the adjacent rectory. No one was injured, but the total damage came to about $9 million.After the fire, Shiga bragged to an undercover officer that he was the one who had torched the church. But it took the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI a year to conduct a complex investigation before his arrest May 14, 2012. At the time, Shiga was on parole after pleading “no contest” to sexual battery of female students at Rio Hondo College in Whittier. During the two-week trial in Pomona Superior Court, the accused acted as his own lawyer, presenting no witnesses and refusing to testify. At times, he just stared at people in the courtroom or ginned. It took the jury under an hour to find him guilty on all five counts. Sentencing is set for July 19.Meanwhile, for a year now priests and parishioners at St. John Vianney have celebrated Mass in an “interim church.” The white, air-conditioned enclosed structure has a capacity of around 850 compared to the old church’s 1,000. It features individual chair-kneelers, along with a Blessed Sacrament chapel and confessional.Rebuilding effortWhen the first Mass was celebrated on July 7, 2012, in the temporary church, Msgr. Nichols, the pastor, quipped, “We haven’t been kneeling for a while, right? Try them out.”Early on, the parish formed a “Rebuild Committee” and has hired an architect, liturgical consultant and acoustical engineer. With input from parishioners and priests, they’ve developed a master plan for the new church complex, which includes a “fellowship” garden. And this fall a capital campaign is scheduled to kick off. A final settlement still hasn’t been reached between the insurance company and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Also, the issue of applying for a new Conditional Use Permit from the County of Los Angeles remains unsettled. In a recent newsletter, Msgr. Nichols wrote: “Thanks to each and every one of you for the patience you are exhibiting during this unimaginably lengthy process. Your patience and overwhelming support helps me to accept delays and to be grateful for the progress that we have made.”A parishioner with her family since 1972, Chris Sanchez is one of those St. John churchgoers who remains steadfast. “We lost a few people when we were attending Mass in the O’Callaghan [parish hall] center,” she reported. “They went to other churches. But I’ve seen people who had gone away starting to come back. “The thing is, this whole episode of ours has brought us closer together,” Sanchez pointed out. “Not only closer in spirit, we’re closer together hip to hip sitting on those chairs. So you get really friendly, and the Masses now are so crowded that people are standing. I just feel that we’ve come out of this more as a community than we had before.”Father Viveros agrees. “It is a temporary structure, but it is our church,” said the associate pastor who, from his upstairs bedroom, was the first to see St. John Vianney Church engulfed in flames. “It is a temporary structure, but it’s become our space, and we’ve gotten attached to it. We call it ‘the church.’” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0719/conviction/{/gallery}