Federal agents join arson investigation into fire at St. John's Catholic Church


Federal agents are now part of the investigation into who started an overnight fire at a historic downtown church. The damage at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church is now estimated to be $400,000.

The church is right across the street from the Indiana Convention Center on Georgia Street. The small blaze at the 175-year-old building caused thousands of dollars in damage and rattled some nerves.

Typically on a Wednesday at noon, parishioners would be preparing for Mass at St. John's, but that service has been canceled. A church known for its open doors is now closed, at least temporarily, as the criminal investigation continues.

Some answers may be contained in video shot by at least one surveillance camera in the area. It's unclear if an Indianapolis Metro Police Department camera was pointing in the right direction to catch any valuable images. The fire may be considered small, but investigators are treating it as a big deal by putting a lot of resources into finding out who is responsible.

Firefighters were on the altar and the sanctuary filled with smoke. St. John's Catholic Church turned from a house of worship to crime scene. Investigators say this was no accident, but who started the fire is a mystery.

"They're really more concerned that this might have been somebody who happened to be walking past the church and maybe they found an unlocked door somehow," said Capt. Rita Burris, Indianapolis Fire Department.

At 4:15 am, IMPD responded to a building alarm. A short time later a fire alarm went off. Firefighters put out a small blaze near the entrance. A flag, several song books and carpet all went up in flames, for a total of $400,000 in damage.  Most of the damage is from smoke that filled the large ornate sanctuary.

"There is a ton of smoke inside the sanctuary and right now what they're trying to do is get the fans going or some kind of ventilation up top because the ceilings are so high, they're having a tough time clearing the smoke out of the inside," explained Burris, speaking as firefighters were still on the scene early Wednesday.

During last year's Super Bowl, St. John's capitalized on its strategic location adjacent to Georgia Street and Super Bowl Village. The public was welcomed. More than enough money was raised to fix old, leaky spires. Hours were extended. That success has had a ripple effect on the congregation, with attendance up 40 percent.

"God always outdoes us you know, and he did again," said Fr. Rick Nagel, St. John's.

Now investigators are collecting bags of evidence trying to answer the question: who would target Indianapolis' oldest Catholic congregation and why?

The noon Mass has been canceled as part of the investigation.