ATF determines St. Leo’s fire was arson, offers reward money for information

Neighbors in Philadelphia’s Tacony neighborhood watch workers at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church the morning after a fire

Neighbors in Philadelphia’s Tacony neighborhood watch workers at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church the morning after a fire started on Sunday, May 9, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Days after a fire gutted St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Philadelphia, federal authorities say the blaze was intentionally set. And they’re asking for the public’s help catching the person or persons responsible.

“They declared it definitively incendiary,” said Robert J. Cucinotta, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives on Thursday. “It’s a very active investigation.”

Cucinotta declined to say how the fire was started.

His agency is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who provides information leading to an arrest and conviction.

The Citizens Crime Commission is offering up to an additional $10,000 reward, bringing the total to $20,000.

Anyone with information is being encouraged to contact the ATF at 1-888-ATF-TIPS; email the agency at ATFTips@atf.gov; or contact officials through the ATF’s website at www.atf.gov/contact/atftips.

The fire broke out around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, devastating former parishioners and neighbors in Tacony, where the stone church stood for more than 130 years.

By Monday afternoon, officials said they had to do a partial demolition and take down the steeple for safety reasons.

Permanently closed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2019, the church at Keystone Street and Unruh Avenue was home to countless weddings and graduations over the years. The building was also listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

“It matters because this is one of the main institutions in the neighborhood, in its history. The building’s architecture was significant because it was an example of the gothic revival style,” said Alex Balloon, director of the Tacony Community Development Corporation, on Monday.

The church also contained a 30-year-old time capsule buried in one of the building’s stone walls. It was set there by a group of grade school students from the church’s elementary school to celebrate St. Leo’s 100th anniversary.

“They said we’d never be alive to pull it out,” said Michelle Turner earlier this week.

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