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BATON ROUGE, LA: Fire reduces St. Luke's Episcopal Church to smoldering ruin

BATON ROUGE, LA: Fire reduces St. Luke's Episcopal Church to smoldering ruin
Horrific blaze lights up Baton Rouge night sky

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
February 20, 2024

BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA -- The word that immediately flashes across the mind when hearing about the fire which leveled St. Luke's Episcopal Church is: devastating!

A three-alarm blaze broke out early Saturday morning (February 17) reducing the church sanctuary, Pope Hall, and the church library to piles of burnt cinder, rubble, and ashes.

It was an hour past midnight that the Baton Rouge Fire Department was alerted to the growing fire by a Baton Rouge police officer. The Fire Department responded to the catastrophic fire to find the flames chewing through St. Luke's attic. The fire department answered the call with 19 firefighting trucks including eight pumpers, three ladder trucks and other support vehicles. More than 75 firefighters, including some from the St. George Fire Department, battled the fire during the predawn darkness. It took more than two hours to knock out the flames which were lighting up the night sky.

As word quickly spread St. Luke's parishioners started to arrive to witness their beloved church go up in flames against the backdrop of a blackened sky while enduring the mid-February early morning chill.

The Lord, with the help of the vigilant firemen, stayed the hand of destruction from touching St. Luke's Episcopal School which is attached to the church by a covered cloister The education building emerged from the night of heat and flames unscathed.

Also, Columbaria House, the church's columbarium which houses the beloved urned ashes of St. Luke's forefathers and foremothers -- aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, nieces, nephews, friends, and neighbors -- remains standing.

The church is deemed a total loss with damages estimated at around $4 million. The cause of the blaze is being investigated.

The church, located at 8833 Goodwood Boulevard, sits on seven acres originally carved from the 2,000-acre Goodwood Plantation which, during its Antebellum days, grew and harvested Indian corn, sugarcane, and cotton. The remaining plantation house is one of the few remaining Antebellum plantation houses still intact.

St. Luke's congregation was established in 1956 but the church building, which met with a fiery destruction over the weekend, was built in 1964.

Church fires tend to burn very hot and spread quickly because of all the polishing wax embedded in the pews through decades of dedicated altar guild cleaning. Many clergy, regardless of denomination, view their older historic church buildings as tender boxes because of the years of buildup from pew polish and floor wax.

The Baton Rouge Episcopal congregation is a bishop maker. Two former rectors of recent memory -- Clarence Pope and Charles Jenkins -- became bishops as a result of their rectorship at St. Luke's.

Bishop Pope (II Fort Worth) was at the helm of St. Luke's for 21 years before becoming a bishop in Texas. He was very active in the Anglo-Catholic movement and was the first president of the Episcopal Synod of America. When he died in 2012 his funeral was held at St. Luke's but he was buried at Grace Episcopal Cemetery in St. Francisville.

The second St. Luke's rector to wear purple was Bishop Jenkins (X Louisiana). He was at the Baton Rouge parish for 12 years before being elevated to the bishopric in his home state. In 2006 he was a candidate for Presiding Bishop along with Neil Alexander (IX Atlanta); Francisco Duque-Gomez (IV Colombia); Ted Gulick (VII Kentucky); Henry Parsley (X Alabama); and Stacy Sauls (VI Lexington). They all lost out to Katherine Jeffers Schori who broke the stained-glass ceiling becoming the first female primate in the Anglican Communion. When he died in 2021, he was buried from Grace Church in St. Francisville.

After the flames were doused and the sun rose Saturday morning, the extent of the destruction and damage became fully visible. Within hours heavy equipment moved in to start clearing the debris for the eventual rebuilding process.

Obviously, all church activities were cancelled for Saturday. But the next day -- Sunday -- was Lent I. The First Sunday in Lent church service had to continue.

The two usual Sunday services of Holy Communion at 8:45 and 11 AM were combined into the early service and moved to the school gymnasium.

"In the face of adversity, let us find solace and strength in our fellowship with God and each other," posted Fr. Bryan Owen on the church website. "I invite you to join us for one church service this Sunday morning at 8:45 AM in the St. Luke's School gym, where we will lift our voices in prayer and gratitude together."

To cut down congestion parishioners were asked to park near the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters where neighboring Broadmoor Baptist Church would provide a shuttle service to and from St. Luke's school gym. Parishioners were also asked to bring their personal copy of the Book of Common Prayer to the school gym with them since the pew prayer books were destroyed by the fire.

St. Luke's is one of seven Episcopal congregations in Baton Rouge. The other Episcopal worship sites include parishes St. James, St. Margaret's, and Trinity. The two missions are St. Michael's and St. Augustine. There is also St. Alban's Chapel at Louisiana State University.

Reaching out to St. Luke's in a time of need is Bishopette Shannon Duckworth (XII Louisiana), who has set up a diocesean rebuilding fund, and neighboring Episcopal parishes St. James and St. Margaret's which offered vestments and Altar supplies for the ones that were damaged or destroyed by the inferno.

Both the bishop and St. Margaret's rector, Fr. Tommy Dillion, joined St. Luke's shell-shocked congregation for the Sunday service. Fr. Dillion is also the dean of the Baton Rouge Deanery.

"I woke up this (Sunday) morning after not the best night's sleep. When I woke up I thought, 'Man, that was one of the worst dreams I've ever had,'" Fr. Owen said in his first post fire sermon. "As I started to wake up, I realized 'No, this is real. This is really happening.'"

Fr. Owen, who has been rector since 2013, also displayed St. Luke's Processional Cross which survived the fire but was warped and misshapen by the intense heat. Also, a cherished needle point stole made by his mother was found intact, however it smelled of smoke rather than incense and was rather dingy from fire soot.

"The precious stole my mother handmade for me was recovered from the ruins of St. Luke's Episcopal Church," he posted on Facebook. "It smells of smoke and is darkened by soot. But the tiny stitches are a visible sign of the renewal that is to come."

St. Luke's is not the only Episcopal church in recent times to be devastated by fire. At least six Episcopal churches were touched by fire in 2023 including: St. Stephen's, Douglas, Arizona, May, 22, 2023; Church of the Messiah, Central Islip, Long Island, New York, June 18, 2023; St. James, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, June 26, 2023; Holy Innocents, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, August 8, 2023; Holy Innocents, Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, Parmelee, South Dakota, October 28, 2023; and St. Peter's, Oak Grove, Westmoreland County, Virginia, December 29, 2023.

Episcopal churches are just as vulnerable to the forces of nature. Two Episcopal churches were also destroyed by spring tornadoes in March 2023 -- Chapel of the Cross in Rolling Fork, Mississippi on March 24; and Grace Church in Wynne, Arkansas on March 31.

BEWARE SCAMMERS: https://www.wafb.com/2024/02/26/scammers-strike-after-br-church-asks-donations-following-major-fire/

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline.

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