A group of neighborhood teenagers were behind the fire that destroyed St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Tacony earlier this year, prosecutors said Thursday in announcing charges against them.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office did not identify the four defendants, citing their status as juveniles, but said two of them would face felony charges of conspiracy, burglary, and arson. The other two teens were detained and charged only with burglary and conspiracy.
“The crimes alleged here harmed the Tacony community,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement. “Even though the church was being redeveloped for private use, St. Leo was revered for its history of baptisms, weddings, memorials, and other milestone life events held by our neighbors in this region”
No one was injured in the blaze, which gutted the historic 137-year-old church at the intersection of Keystone Street and Unruh Avenue over Mother’s Day weekend. But its loss left a hole in the heart of a neighborhood that had, for generations, relied upon it as a community landmark and a touchstone to Tacony’s history as a company town founded by the Disston Saw Works in the 19th century.
The church was originally built in 1884 to serve Northeast Philadelphia’s growing Irish population, many of whom worked at the Disston factory. Some of the stones used in its Gothic Revival facade came from the company itself.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia had decommissioned the church as a worship site in 2019, and sold the building to investor David Damaghi just a month before the fire.
Damaghi had hoped to turn the building into an arts and performance center. He did not have fire insurance, said his attorney Aaron Gross .
“We have been and continue to work closely with community leaders on the future of this site and how it can best remain a source of good for the neighborhood,” Gross said.
A tip, offered in response to a $20,000 reward for information, led authorities to those charged Thursday with starting the blaze. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments investigated the case.