NEW CASTLE, Ind. – Law enforcement officials said April 10 that an early morning fire that destroyed historic St. Anne Church in New Castle three days earlier was arson.
Firefighters battled the blaze for five hours on Holy Saturday in windy and unseasonably cold weather. Parishioners who had planned to celebrate the Easter Vigil there that evening traveled instead to nearby Cambridge City, where they were part of a standing-room-only congregation at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church.
State Fire Marshal Roger Johnson and officials with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives immediately began a criminal investigation after the fire was put out, restricting access to the parish property and cordoning the area off with yellow crime-scene tape.
The fire, which began in the basement, gutted the interior of the 83-year-old brick church, burned through the roof and melted stained-glass windows.
The criminal investigation was suspended on Easter but resumed the next day. In a joint statement April 10 investigators of the federal and state agencies and of the New Castle police and fire departments said the fire was arson. They did not discuss any possible motives or suspects.
Monsignor Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general for the Indianapolis Archdiocese, said that he and Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis were “very upset, very distraught, over the loss of St. Anne Church on Holy Saturday morning … but we’re thankful that nobody was injured in the fire. … Our prayers are with the people of St. Anne Parish and (Franciscan) Sister Shirley Gerth, the parish life coordinator.”
Archbishop Buechlein visited the site April 10 to see the damage firsthand.
Although most of the church roof was gone, a cross mounted above the front entrance of the church was not damaged. New Castle Fire Chief Ron Rigney estimated the damage at $1.5 million to $2 million.
Eric Atkins, archdiocesan director of management services, said the archdiocese has insurance to cover the loss.
“We still need to do a thorough assessment of the church building to determine what’s structurally sound and what if anything can be salvaged,” Atkins said April 10. “Because this is a crime scene, we have not been able to do that yet.”
Atkins said the sanctuary of the church was poured concrete, but the wooden main floor was destroyed in the fire and the pews fell into the basement in a heap of burned rubble.
St. Anne Church was a landmark in Henry County in eastern Indiana. The parish has about 300 households and 700 members.
Sister Shirley said the first Mass was celebrated in the church on Easter in 1924. St. Anne Parish was established in 1873 and the original church was built a few blocks from the present site.
After Good Friday services April 6, Sister Shirley and several parishioners stayed on to decorate the church for Easter. “We decorated until 8:30 p.m. last night, and everything was fine when I locked the church,” she told The Criterion, Indianapolis archdiocesan newspaper.
She said she discovered the fire at 7:40 a.m. when she went to the church to turn up the heat before the Saturday morning Mass. “As I opened the door, the smoke just engulfed me. … I ran over to the house and called 911, and they told me someone had already called them.”
Just moments earlier a police officer had noticed the smoke as he drove by and called in the alarm.
Sister Shirley has served as parish life coordinator of St. Anne Parish and St. Rose Parish in Knightstown since 1995.
Father Joseph Rautenberg, pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish and sacramental minister of St. Anne and St. Rose, celebrated the Easter Vigil at St. Elizabeth, with parishioners from St. Anne and St. Rose also part of the congregation that filled all available seats and stood along the outside aisles. A sign outside the church said “St. Anne, our prayers are with you.”
In his homily Father Rautenberg contrasted the fire at St. Anne with the Easter fire blessed at the start of the Vigil.
“Fire is an important symbol,” he said. “It represents the spiritual light of Christ – his truth and the comforting warmth of his love. … But fire can also … seem to take on a life of its own, where it escapes control and destroys, even kills.”
He said Easter recalls for Christians that “out of death comes life. Jesus lives and reigns forever.”
The church in New Castle has been destroyed, he said, “but the parish and its history and its faith continue.”