Fire destroys church building at St. Luke’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Feb 19, 2024

Fire engulfs the church building of St. Luke’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the early morning hours of Feb. 17. The church, along with a fellowship hall and the church library, were a total loss. Other buildings on the campus, including a school, were unharmed. Photo: Baton Rouge Fire Department via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] The building housing St. Luke’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was destroyed by a fire in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, along with the church library and Pope Hall (a fellowship space). Other buildings on the campus, including its K-8 school, were unaffected.

“Despite the flames that consumed buildings, our faith remains strong and our spirits unbroken,” the Rev. Bryan Owen, the church’s rector, said in a message to parishioners on the church’s website. Fire investigators have not yet determined a cause.

The fire started about 1 a.m. Saturday and quickly was reported by a police officer who saw smoke coming from the building. By the time firefighters arrived, the nave was engulfed in flames, and as they battled the fire, part of the building collapsed. None of the 75 firefighters on the scene were hurt, according to a press release.

After the fire was out, a demolition company arrived on site to begin removing debris.

The church building, which served a congregation of about 1,500 baptized members, was built in 1964.

Louisiana Bishop Shannon Duckworth and her husband arrived at St. Luke’s just hours after the fire was discovered, as did the Very Rev. Tommy Dillon, rector of St. Margaret’s and dean of the Baton Rouge deanery, Owen said.

On the morning of Feb. 18, parishioners gathered in the school’s gymnasium for a Sunday Eucharist service, and the bishop assured St. Luke’s members the diocese would assist them with recovery.

“We are here with you for the long haul,” Duckworth said, adding that she looks forward to consecrating a rebuilt St. Luke’s church.

Because of the fire, “Good Friday has come early this year,” Owen said in his sermon. Christians are asked to give up something for Lent, “but this is ridiculous,” he joked.

While it’s true that the church isn’t a building but instead are the people who worship there, the building nonetheless, he said, is “a sacred space that has held precious memories,” and that even amid that feeling of Good Friday, “the joy and hope of Easter shine.”

During his Feb. 18 sermon, the Rev. Bryan Owen, rector of St. Luke’s, displayed a processional cross that survived the fire but was warped by its heat.  Photo: St. Luke’s YouTube screenshot

Two other Baton Rouge Episcopal churches – St. Margaret’s and St. James’ – loaned vestments and altar items to St. Luke’s for Sunday’s worship. Many of the church’s silver altar items were recovered, and Owen displayed a processional cross that survived the fire but was warped and bent by the heat. Photos on the church website showed several statues that had been retrieved.

The columbarium, which houses ashes of people who have died, was intact and unharmed, Owen said.

Before and after the service, members of Broadmoor Baptist Church ran shuttles between the church and a nearby parking lot, where worshipers were asked to park. Worshippers were asked to bring their own Book of Common Prayer, since those in the church were destroyed.

On Sunday evening Owen shared on his Facebook page that the needlepoint stole his mother had made for him had been recovered from the church rubble. He said the stole “smells of smoke and is darkened by soot. But the tiny stitches are a visible sign of the renewal that is to come.”

The Diocese of Louisiana has set up a webpage for donations to assist the rebuilding effort.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.