Arson attacks and death threats force woman priest to flee parish

Terror campaign believed to bework of person with hatred of female clergy

It had taken months for the Rev Yvonne Hobson to feel secure enough to return to her beloved church in the picturesque Cornish parish of Paul. She had stayed away from it after falling victim to a vicious hate-letter campaign, which culminated with arson attacks on her home and car.

Nothing that happened early on14 September suggested her torment would begin again. She arrived at St Pol de Leon church and helped to oversee holy communion, which passed off as normal. But, as she began to clean the church in readiness for parish communion later that morning, a new chapter in her ordeal began. As she picked up a small Bible, placed in front of her favourite seat in church's stalls, a small, folded postcard fell out. A short message to her was scrawled on it and gave clear instructions, "Leave the church or your life will be in danger".

Although she closed the card before helping to oversee the communion, Mrs Hobson has not been seen by her congregation since the message was found. She is again staying away from the church and considering whether she can continue under such intimidation.

The new threat against Mrs Hobson has come as a shock to the close-knit community near Penzance. Everyone in the parish had thought the campaign against their reverend, seemingly from someone with a vendetta against female priests, would finally disappear.

"We had all hoped the threats and attacks would stop, so this new message has come as a real shock," said John George, a regular worshipper at St Pol de Leon. "We can only hope the message had lain undiscovered in the Bible for a long time and was part of a previous vendetta against her. It would be awful for Yvonne and the church for the attacks on her to start again.

"Ours is a happy and popular church, and it is sad that these events have made the church make the headlines for the wrong reasons."

Mrs Hobson, 54, arrived in Paul as its curate in 2006. She received her calling to the Church late in life, completing a theology degree at Exeter University before being ordained in 2003. Problems did not start straight away. In fact, the new curate had almost a year of happiness in the parish.

It was when she began to take sermons in the summer of 2007, after the the parish vicar, the Rev Gordon Hansford, retired that the vendetta against her began. Poison-pen notes began to arrive at the church. They also appeared at the vicarage and at Mrs Hobson's home in Penzance, which she shares with her husband, Donald.

One letter was placed in a private church room which was left unlocked. Mrs Hobson was given a particular fright when she stumbled upon the letter, realising that the perpetrator had crept in to leave it.

The contents of the messages were at times confused, but they seemed to express sentiments against the ordination of women priests. One was so vicious that it prompted the Bishop of Truro to make a plea for help from the pulpit of St Pol de Leon.

For a while, his intervention seemed to have worked – the letters stopped appearing and everyone began to hope the cloud that was hanging over theirvillage would finally be lifted. But then, in November, the campaign against Mrs Hobson became more serious. Two symbolic arson attacks were carried out on her home and car.

First, a candle was left to burn in a basket of logs in her front porch last November. Firefighters had to put it out before too much damage was caused to the £350,000 property. The window of her Mercedes was also forced open and a burning candle dropped inside, while Mrs Hobson was in the church taking choir practice.

For Mrs Hobson, the escalation of the attacks against her was more than she could bear. She stepped down from her church duties in December to recover, and the letters and attacks stopped. After months away from the church, she slowly began to take a role at St Pol de Leon again in June, with the arrival of a new and very supportive vicar, the Rev Tim Heaney. But the latest death threat has rekindled fears that the campaign against her may resurface. The community has rallied around the curate, who has always refused to talk about threats made against her. The Bishop of St Germans, The Rt Rev Roy Screech, has also offered his support.

Despite the concerted campaign of intimidation against Mrs Hobson, now spanning more than a year, police are not close to tracking down the person, or persons, behind it. Some in the community believe the culprit must come from outside the area. "I cannot believe it is anyone in the church's congregation or the wider Paul community," said one villager. It has also upset Mr Heaney, who had seen Mrs Hobson's role in his church increase since the summer. "It was something we hoped was behind us. It is a baffling attack," he said.

"The community has clubbed together with what has happened here. While we are all of course upset for Yvonne, we are determined that the actions of this person will not stop us from carrying on the church's good name and work here. We believe in a loving God and whatever one's thoughts about how we should run his church, he would never condone actions like this. It is a point I repeat in my sermons."

A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police said: "An item described as a postcard, which had a threatening message on it, fell out of a Bible when Reverend Hobson picked it up.

"The message has been sent for forensic examination. We are currently investigating the threat but have no named subjects at this point."

Members of the congregation said the new vicar had been offering prayers for Mrs Hobson, as well as for the person responsible for the vendetta against her.

"We must all remember that whoever is doing this may need help in some way – we have to be sure to see it in every possible light," said John George. "That's why we pray for him, too."