ST. LOUIS • The seventh in a rash of unexplained arson fires set at predominantly black churches broke the mold early Thursday morning: It was on the opposite side of the city, outside the historic Shrine of St. Joseph, where most who attend weekly Mass are white.
The crime did follow part of the pattern over the past two weeks, with a small blaze set against exterior doors. In this case, it was the entrance to the rectory of the shrine, at 1220 North 11th Street. The Roman Catholic church is at the northern edge of downtown, north of the Edward Jones Dome in what is known as Columbus Square.
Police continued to look for suspects Thursday as members of every company in the St. Louis Fire Department handed out fliers to spread the word about rewards that have grown to total $9,000.
Fire Capt. Garon Mosby said, “This isn’t a north city problem, it’s not a North County problem. It’s a St. Louis problem.”
St. Joseph’s is seven or eight miles east of the area where the other six fires were set: four in northwest St. Louis and two just beyond the city limits, in Jennings.
An automatic smoke alarm brought firefighters to St. Joseph’s about 1:08 a.m., while the smoldering fire on the heavy wooden doors could still be managed with a hand extinguisher. No damage estimate was available.
The Rev. Dale Wunderlich, who serves as priest at the church, said some who attend are black and a number are of Filipino heritage but most are white.
“It’s kind of a mystery — why would anybody want to vandalize a place like the Shrine of St. Joseph?” Wunderlich said. “I feel a sort of kinship with the other pastors” whose churches have been damaged.
Wunderlich does not live at the rectory. No one was there when the fire was set.
Flames that charred the bottom of the doors did not spread to the small foyer beyond. The three-story rectory used to be a Jesuit school but is now used as offices. A nonprofit associated with the church restored it in the early 1980s.
Ralph Kannady, 88, a Ferguson resident who for many years was head of the lay board for the church, said Thursday, “I think it stinks.” He added, “I can’t understand why anyone would want to set fire to a church door. This world is full of nuts.”
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is working with police and the fire department in the investigation. Anyone with information is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 866-371-8477 or the Missouri Division of Fire Safety at 800-39-ARSON.
As a shrine, it does not have parish boundaries. Wunderlich said about 200 people attend Mass there every week. About a third of them visit from out of town for the shrine’s history and reputation, said Gabe Jones, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. About 50 weddings a year are held there.
“We’re hoping this gets resolved,” Jones said. “We pray that whoever is doing this is just a prankster and he can get some help.”
The property is owned by the Archdiocese. The nonprofit Friends of the Shrine of St. Joseph Inc. handles restoration and upkeep, and has spent more than $2 million since 1980, according to its president, Jim Blum. The volunteer group collects contributions to fund the work, and has paid for a new roof, installed air conditioning and restored a pipe organ and the church interior.
He said, “There’s something absolutely special about the place.”