Historic St. John's Church near White House torched by rioters

Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest on May 31, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest on May 31, 2020, in Washington, D.C. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The parish office at the historic St. John's Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, D.C., was torched as riots escalated Sunday night.

Fox News White House correspondent Kevin Corke was at the scene to report that the church had been vandalized with graffiti and the basement nursery set on fire. 

"It does appear that St. John's Church is on fire, the parish office," Corke said. "We went downstairs, and it is on fire."

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"This is awful. We saw graffiti, once the door was broken, we saw something similar happen earlier, and as you can see there's definitely a fire here," he said a half-hour before the city's 11 p.m. curfew. 

"It's a sad scene. This is a beautiful church. ... St. John's Church is a landmark in many ways, so it's very difficult to see this building go up in flames. Hopefully, they can get here and put out the fire."

Fox News host Shannon Bream explained that the church is a place presidents have gone to for spiritual guidance in challenging moments in the nation's history. 

"Numerous presidents ... have sat in those pews. They have gone there in times of national trouble, they've gone there for regular Sunday services. For generations, presidents and their families have walked across Lafayette Park and gone and sat in the pews of St. John's," Bream said. 

"On Inauguration Day, you'll see them go there and have a prayer service welcoming in the new administration," she continued. 

The Metropolitan Police Department posted an alert on Twitter at midnight, notifying the public that police and the DC Fire Department were "responding to multiple fires intentionally set around the city, including at St. John’s Episcopal Church in the 1500 blk of H Street, NW, with @dcfireems. This church has been standing in our city since the early 1800s. Please avoid the area."

Earlier in the night, rioters ripped down a U.S. flag displayed outside the church as people chanted burn that s**t.

The Episcopal church says on its website that it's known as "the Church of the Presidents," because every president since James Madison has attended a service at St. John's. Pew 54 is reserved for presidents when they attended. 

Consecrated on Dec. 27, 1816, the church is registered as a National Historic Landmark. 

In a letter to parishioners on Sunday, hours before the parish office was set on fire, the Rev. Rob Fisher addressed the unrest in the country and detailed damage the church had already sustained in the previous night's protests:

We write to you with heavy, but hopeful hearts. Our community and our country are in anguish and unrest. And yet, we can see that thousands of people are lifting their voices and organizations are engaging in peaceful, meaningful action to ensure the life of George Floyd and countless others are not lost in vain. As Bishop Curry wrote this morning, in the upcoming days and weeks, we will unite as a church community to follow the path of love and to channel this anguish into concrete, productive and powerful action.

Given the recent media coverage of the protests, you may be concerned about our beloved church and parish house. We are fortunate that the damage to the buildings is limited. There is some exterior graffiti, and the protective glass over one of the more modern stained-glass windows on the north side of the narthex has been broken (the stained glass itself is unharmed). Thankfully, there is no damage inside either of the buildings. This morning we secured, as best we could, our most valuable items.

As you know, today is Pentecost, one of the church’s primary feasts. If we had been in church, we would surely have sung "Sweet, Sweet Spirit," a St. John’s favorite. You know the words: "There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know it’s the spirit of the Lord. Sweet holy spirit, sweet heavenly dove, stay right here with us, filling us with your love.” Hymn 120, "Lift Every Voice and Sing, II." It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate prayer for the place in which we as a nation find ourselves.

We are proud to be a church that welcomes all and champions the path of love.

In peace,

The Rev. Rob Fisher, Rector

Paul Barkett, Senior Warden

Jeff Hanston, Junior Warden

Follow Melissa Barnhart on Twitter: @MelBarnhart

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