Arson fire damages San Francisco church early on Good Friday

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Apr 3, 2024

Firefighters on ladders remove burned wood shingles from a portion of the exterior of St. John the Evangelist Church, San Francisco, California, early in the early morning hours of Good Friday, March 29, after an arsonist set fire to cardboard that spread up the building’s siding. Photo: Kevin Deal

[Episcopal News Service] An arson fire damaged the exterior of St. John the Evangelist Church in San Francisco, California, early on Good Friday, March 29, but it didn’t stop the remainder of the parish’s Holy Week celebrations or its service to its neighborhood.

The parish’s vicar, the Rev. Kevin Deal, told Episcopal News Service that the fire started about 2:30 a.m., based on when security alarms were triggered, and the San Francisco Fire Department arrived within minutes. The exterior of the building, which was built in 1908, is made of wood shingles. Cardboard had been placed against one side of the building and then set on fire, he said.

“This was an arsonist looking to burn down the church, and it’s obvious from the videos we have,” he said. He added that the same person was caught on security videos setting a fire early Saturday morning at an apartment building not far from the church. That building suffered significant damage, and two people were slightly injured, according to news reports.

Deal said St. John’s has received “so much love” after the fire from people in San Francisco and around the country. The Diocese of California also has offered support, along with the people who use the building regularly.

The Good Friday service – which like all St. John’s services are offered in English and Spanish – took  place as scheduled, along with the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening and the Easter Sunday service.

When the new fire was kindled in the church garden at the beginning of the Easter Vigil service, parishioners put a piece of a burned exterior shingle into the fire “to proclaim that we are a resurrection community, and that we’re going to come back stronger,” Deal said.

Homeless people who usually come to the church for a safe place to sleep during the day were displaced on Friday and instead huddled in tents in the church garden. They were able to return on Monday, April 1, even as the church still smelled of smoke. The church, located in the Mission District, offers a variety of harm reduction services to those in the neighborhood – needle exchanges, foot care and wound care – and serves as a place for dances and other cultural practices for their American Indian neighbors.

While the church sees about 40 worshippers on Sunday morning, he said hundreds of people are there during the week and “they consider this space their home.”

“We do love our building,” Deal said, “and we love it because we can open our doors wide to everybody in our neighborhood as a refuge, a sanctuary and a shelter. That comes, like it did with Jesus, with risks, risks that we are willing to absorb for the sake of the gospel.”

No dollar amount has yet been assigned to the damage, he said, and he hopes that repairs can begin soon.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.