Even as he rushed toward the plumes of black smoke billowing from St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Tacony earlier this month, the Rev. Joseph Farrell III still held out hope the historic worship site might survive.
He watched aghast with parishioners from neighboring Disston Park as flames devoured its stonework and noxious fumes obscured the striking arched steeple, a beacon familiar to many passing along I-95.
The church — a victim of arsonists, fire investigators would eventually say — was long past saving, leaving a hole in the heart of Tacony.
“It was such a spectacular thing,” said Farrell, who served as its pastor from 2010 until 2013, when the parish was consolidated and he took over ministry at neighboring Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church.
Seeing the burned-out husk of the 137-year-old church at the corner of Keystone Street and Unruh Avenue now, he said, “it’s almost undignified.”
In the nearly two weeks since that Mother’s Day blaze, the aftermath of the St. Leo’s fire has brought out the best — and the worst — of this prideful Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood with roots as old as the church’s.
Residents have come together to discuss ways to memorialize the loss and to raise money for a family who lived in the old rectory and was displaced by the blaze. But news that investigators believe the fire was intentionally set sent the Tacony gossip mill atwitter.
Wild and unfounded speculation quickly flooded neighborhood Facebook groups with some pointing fingers at the developer who had purchased the decommissioned church from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia a month before the fire.
“They hadn’t even put it out, and there were people claiming that they knew for a fact that the owner had been arrested,” said Barbara Rupp, a neighborhood activist and chairwoman of the Northeast Quality of Life Coalition whose children attended the St. Leo’s school.
The rumors reached such a fever pitch that last week authorities took the unusual step of convening a meeting among community groups where they announced that owner David Damaghi was not a suspect, that he had provided his full assistance, and that they believe the fire was set by unknown trespassers.
No arrests have been made and investigators are offering a $20,000 reward for information about the blaze.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives declined to comment this week on the ongoing arson probe, except to say that Damaghi has been “extremely cooperative.”
For his part, Damaghi did not return repeated phone calls over the last week. He told CatholicPhilly, the archdiocese’s official news outlet, that he had hoped to transform the church into an arts and performance center before the fire.
Damaghi’s lawyer, Aaron Gross, acknowledged the gossip had been harmful. His client, he said, did not have fire insurance on the building and is dealing with a significant financial loss.
Still, the intensity with which neighbors have sought someone to blame speaks to the revered place that St. Leo’s had long held in their community.
Listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and opened in 1884, St. Leo’s was originally built to serve Northeast Philadelphia’s growing Irish population, including many who were drawn to Tacony for the “company town” atmosphere established by its largest employer, Disston Saw Works.
Some of the stones used in its Gothic Revival facade came from the company itself and the decision was made not to install a bell in the church’s belfry for fear it might interrupt the sleep of the factory’s shift workers.
“Disston Saw helped build the community in Tacony, and St. Leo’s was part of the fabric of its eat, sleep, work, play, and pray concept before other neighborhoods in the city,” said City Councilmember Bobby Henon, who represents the neighborhood and whose district office was once just a short walk from the church.
Even after the plant closed, St. Leo’s carried on as a touchstone for generations of families that lived nearby.
“Everyone made their baptisms here, everyone was married here, everyone made their Communions here, my parents were both buried here,” Ann Marie Kuvik, whose mother had been vice principal of the St. Leo’s school, told reporters as she watched the church burn. “Everything major in our lives happened here. Everything.”
When the archdiocese made the decision to shut the church down and consolidate it with Farrell’s new parish in 2013, many continued to worship at the site until the church was finally shuttered for good in 2019 to prepare the building for sale.
It may be gone now. But even amid the ruins and the pernicious gossip, many in the neighborhood remain focused on honoring what was lost.
Henon is helping to spearhead that effort and said he’s had discussions with community members in recent days about salvaging some of the church’s old stonework for a possible memorial.
He secured a time capsule buried there in 1984 to mark the church’s 100-year anniversary. And there’s been discussion of a memorial Mass to be held at the site next month.
Even more heartening, said Rupp, has been seeing the way the community has rallied — people who grew up at St. Leo’s and who have long since left the neighborhood, reconnecting over social media, drawn by its loss and sharing memories of their time at the church.
“It’s not the church that holds the memories,” she said. “It’s them.”
Or, as Henon recently put it: “The church is still alive. It’s just the building that’s gone.”