Parishioners, investigators asking questions about church fire

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Parishioners at a downtown church were shocked to hear of an overnight fire that is being investigated as an arson.

Someone set the narthex at St. John Catholic Church on fire early Wednesday, causing an estimated $400,000 in damage.

"Oh, not good. Not good. Why did they do that?" asked Teresa Favreau.

Federal and city arson investigators are trying to answer that question and many others.

"There is something wrong with people's heads. I don't know what to do about it," said Bill Logan.

At 4 a.m. Wednesday, there was a break-in alarm, then a fire alarm went off. Police and firefighters found a small fire inside the church's front doors. The flames didn't do much damage, but the smoke filled the towering, ornate sanctuary.

Father Rich Nagel told police a meeting at the church broke up around 10 p.m. Tuesday. Was someone hiding inside? Was a door left unlocked? Police found no evidence of a break-in.

"Anytime anything happens to a church, it breaks your heart," said Donna Wyss.

Like its namesake, St. John the Evangelist, St. John Catholic Church reaches out very different groups of people. Its doors are usually open all day, every day.

The daily Mass attracts downtown office workers, retirees and IUPUI students. The church feeds and ministers to the homeless.

"If it is intentional, that's very sad, that we are coming to a place where we can't keep a church open during the day," said Jerome Quigley.

Investigators worked through early morning and most of the day, removing bags of possible evidence from the church and a parking lot dumpster. They are also checking several security cameras that watch over the area.

"You don't feel hate or anger, you feel disappointment. You feel sadness and pray for those souls and maybe they can find their way," said Greg Allard.

Church statement

Nagel issued a statement about the fire Wednesday afternoon:

"St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church would like to thank the Indianapolis Fire Department, Indianapolis Police Department and those who came to the scene of the fire early this morning to help ensure the safety and integrity of the oldest Catholic Church in the city. We are deeply grateful for the immediate response and thorough work of all those professionals involved.

"We are also deeply grateful for all the kind phone calls, emails and text messages which hundreds of people have sent to the parish. This outpour of love exemplifies the goodness of God's people in the midst of tragedy.

"The fire is under investigation at this time and no further information is available as to the details of the damage. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the damaged portion of the Church is reparable.

"St. John's will be open for regular weekday confessions at 11:15 am and regular weekday Mass at 12:10 pm starting tomorrow (Thursday, February 28th). Repairs and smoke damage cleanup will continue before and after the regularly scheduled confessions and mass times. We would ask that our parishioners, neighbors and friends of the media respect the need to move forward with the restoration and not be in the Church outside of the confession and mass times.

"We will provide more information as the investigation and restoration unfolds."