Church fires: From charred doors grows a brotherhood in Christ

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Update at 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 30 — The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives announced the arrest of David Lopez Jackson in connection with two of the seven suspicious fires.

 

Normally, few would associate the two men as being in a brotherhood.One is African-American, in his 40s, the pastor at New Life Missionary Baptist Church.

The other is Anglo-American, in his late 60s, a Roman Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of St. Louis and rector of the Shrine of St. Joseph near downtown St. Louis.

Before Oct. 22, they had never met, but at about 11 a.m. that day, they stood side by side in the foyer at St. Joseph Rectory, linked not only as men of God but now as victims of violence.

For the first time, Father Dale Wulderlich surveyed the damage to the rectory front doors from a deliberately set fire 10 hours prior — the seventh such arson at a St. Louis area church in two weeks. Rev. David Triggs' church in Walnut Park was hit five days earlier and, to this point, has suffered the most damage. Vinyl siding melted and rafters in the small entryway burned, but the sanctuary was unscathed, protected by double doors. Sunday services were held outdoors the next day.

Likewise, interior doors kept fire out of the St. Joseph rectory; alerted by an alarm, firefighters quickly extinguished the smoldering fire. Other than the doors themselves and the burnt smell, the rectory and the church were unaffected.

As Father Wunderlich surveyed the damage, Rev. Triggs pointed to the mail slot in the rectory doors.

"They could have squirted accelerant through the mail slot, because that's what happened at my church," he told Father Wunderlich. "Praise God, it wasn't worse."

The arson, at St. Joseph specifically and at the churches in general, left Father Wunderlich with "question marks. I don't know what else to say. The first question that comes to my mind is, 'Why would anybody want to do it?' I'm sure that's on the mind of police officers and arson specialists. What would be the motivation for something like this?"

Rev. Triggs theorized the responsible person has, or people have, a beef with the "body of Christ," and that the attacks are related to "spiritual matters."

"Jesus said, 'I am the door to freedom,'" he said. "I believe maybe this person (has) attacked our doors sending a message to the body of Christ that he has been maybe harmed or hurt by the church, maybe let down or disappointed.

"I do believe it's a spiritual matter, these issues, and we just have to depend on the Lord and our Christian faith that we're going to pray for God to forgive and pray that he is apprehended."

Rev. Triggs described himself as briefly angry then "very, very, very, very heartbroken" when he learned about the arson the morning of the 22nd before going to St. Joseph to show support.

"It took me to get down on my knees and find that pocket of peace that Christ has given us," he said.

Father Wunderlich also felt a bond with the other faith communities struck by arson.

"When I saw the other churches on the news, it was the same question: Why would they want to do anything like that? Then, I woke up this morning, 'My God, this is the Shrine of St. Joseph!'" he said. "All of a sudden, I feel an interesting kind of kinship ..."

"Brotherhood," Rev. Triggs said, touching Father Wunderlich's shoulder.

"We're all being vandalized, victims together," said Father Wunderlich, who resides at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in University City.

The arsons "accelerate the demand that we stand together; that's exactly where our ministry stands," said Rev. Triggs, whose congregation soon will become United Believers in Christ Ministries in a rebranding "to promote diversity in the community, in the body of Christ. At this moment, mark the day for the body of believers: It has drawn us together."

When secular media suggested this kinship and brotherhood was something Father Wunderlich and Rev. Triggs would rather not have, Father Wunderlich shook his head, disagreeing.

"No. The brotherhood is there already because of the whole Christian church," he said. "This kind of emotion brings it out a little more clearly. We're glad to have the brotherhood. We just don't want it empathized like this."

With that, the Anglo-American and African-American left the rectory for a tour of the church, which volunteer Mary Ann Chibnall-Wetzel called "one of the hidden jewels of St. Louis." Painstakingly restored by volunteer artisans over the past 35 years, the church features numerous, ornate hand-carved features destined for the wrecking ball when pastor Father Edward Filipiak was murdered in the rectory in 1979. Father Filipiak had refused to retire because the church was slated for demolition when he did. After his death, newly installed Archbishop John L. May granted a lay board — the Friends of St. Joseph — financial control of the church, which led to the restoration.

Founded by the Jesuits, the church dates to 1844, is on the national register of historic places, and once met the spiritual needs of German immigrants. It's also the site of St. Louis' only confirmed miracle, the healing of Ignatius Strecker, one of two miracles confirmed by the Vatican in canonizing Jesuit Father Peter Claver as a saint.

In the tour, Rev. Triggs observed the church's beauty, learned about the St. Peter Claver miracle and listened intently to story about the saint's ministry to human beings sold as slaves in the 1600s.

"God bless him," Rev. Triggs said, simply. "You can see the hand of God in this church. It's one thing to read about it and study the history of it, but to be in it, it's just overwhelming. I'm getting chills just being here." 

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