Update, April 10: Holden Matthews, 21, has been arrested in connection with three fires at historically black churches in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Matthews is the son of a St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy. You can read more about Holden Matthews and the case here.
Here is our original report:
Louisiana authorities are investigating three suspicious fires at black churches in the southern part of the state. The state’s fire marshal’s office is leading the probe along with the ATF, FBI and local police. Investigators have not determined if the fires are connected, but are looking into the possibility they were intentionally set by an arsonist.
The fires have all occurred in St. Landry Parish. The first fire occurred March 26 at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. The second fire was April 2 at Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas. And the third fire was April 4 at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, also at Opelousas. The churches were empty when the fires started and no one was injured. There are no suspects and investigators have not yet ruled any of the fires as being caused by arson.
“There is clearly something happening in this community,” Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said in a statement. “That’s why it’s imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is.”
Here’s what you need to know about the string of Louisiana black church fires:
1. The State Fire Marshal Said Investigators Are ‘Very Cognizant That There’s a Problem & There’s No Coincidence That There Are 3 Fires’
At a press conference, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning told reporters that investigators have identified “patterns” that possibly link the three fires, but said he could not get into specifics of what has been found. He said, “We’re very cognizant that there’s a problem and there is no coincidence there were three fires.”
He asked anyone with information about the fires or involved in setting them to come forward. “You’re attacking God’s home,” he told reporters. Browning added, “If you’re going to turn to the house of God, turn to it for resurrection, turn to it for forgiveness.”
Browning told NBC News, ““Right now, what we have to say is that the fires are suspicious. We do believe that crimes have occurred. We believe that the three fires obviously are not coincidental, they are related.”
The AFT and FBI have sent agents to join in the investigation, authorities said. On Twitter, the ATF said, “ATF’s National Response Team on scene investigating fires at 3 houses of worship near Opelousas, La. ATF and our partners continue to investigate the origin and cause of these fires. Contact ATF at 1-888-ATF-FIRE or state arson hotline 1-800-256-5452 w/tips.”
Hundreds of investigators are working the fires. Browning told reporters, “”It’s all about what people see. The best witness, the best evidence is an eyewitness. And I think that’s what we want people to be, is aware of their surroundings and aware of something that might look suspicious that they don’t think is suspicious.
Rick Swanson, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor and civil rights researcher, told The Acadiana Advocate, “it would be very consistent with a pattern of terrorism used against black churches,” if the St. Landry Parish fires turn out to be hate crimes. In 1996, 30 fires burned black churches in Louisiana. Four fires set in Baton Rouge led to arrests after it was determined they were targeted by racists.
Now the state fire marshal, Browning was a deputy chief with the Baton Rouge Police Department at the time. He recalled that case telling The Advocate, “Clearly those fires were set and all at the same time. It was, in fact, a crime of hate.”
Browning added, “We know the past and we know the history and it certainly drives our investigation. I think it brings more passion to our investigation to quickly get answers. We’re hunting them down right now and we’re going to find them. We’re gonna bring them to justice.”
He told CBS News, “We’re gonna solve this. For the people responsible, the right thing to do would be come ask for redemption and come forward and let us help you through this process, don’t make us hunt you down, because we will.”
2. The First Fire Was Reported About 3:40 a.m. & Left Only Part of the Church Standing
According to the Louisiana Office of the State Fire Marshal, the first fire was reported about 3:40 a.m. at the St. Mary Baptist Church in the 100 block of Saqueget Road in Port Barre. The blaze destroyed most of the fire, leaving only part of the brick exterior of the church and rubble behind.
“The morning it burnt, we went straight out there to support. that’s our church and it’s been there a long time,” Letha Hardy told KLFY-TV. The historic church has been an important part of the community for decades.
Michael Landry told the news station, “”It makes me feel really awful that they lost their church. I’m just glad they didn’t have nobody in the church. That was the Lord’s home and lord Jesus. All we can do is pray. we’re going to get us another home. Yes indeed.”
3. The Pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church Says He Arrived to Find the Building Engulfed in Flames & Said ‘At That Moment I Felt Like There Was No Hope’
The second fire occurred on April 2 at Greater Union Baptist Church in the 1400 block of Hwy 742 in Opelousa, according to the state fire marshal’s office. Firefighters responded about 1:45 a.m. and realized that the building could not be saved, according to KATC-TV.
Reverend Harry Richard responded and saw the church engulfed in flames. “At that moment I felt like there was no hope,” Richard told The Advocate. Congregants soon joined him at the scene “I didn’t know what to say,” Richard told the newspaper. “I agreed with them that it was coincidental. I can’t imagine what happened. That’s very unusual.”
He added, “We believe in God and the members are very faithful and committed to serving our God. With their help and continued dedication, we’re going to come through this.”
4. The Third Blaze Destroyed More Than 140 Years of History at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church
The third fire occurred on April 4 at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the 3900 block of Highway 182 in Opelousas. The church has been in existence for more than 140 years. Mount Pleasent Reverend Gerald Toussaint arrived at the scene to find the building destroyed.
“By the time I got back here, it was gone,” he told The Daily Advertiser. “My church has a lot of history. I don’t understand it. What could make a person do that to a church?”
Toussaint told ABC News, “the church is not that building. The church is the people If we stay together as a congregation, the church is alive and well,” he said. “We can rebuild the building as long as we stay together.”
5. A Service Was Held Sunday, April 7 for the Displaced Parishioners of the 3 Churches
Dozens of members of the three churches displaced by the fires joined together at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas for a Sunday service on April 7, according to the Acadiana Advocate.
Reverend Gerald Toussaint said during the service, “The fire didn’t destroy the church. It destroyed the building. We ain’t mad. There’s going to be another building. We don’t know who did this, and we don’t know what color they are. So don’t let people fill you with that because that’s a tactic too.”
According to The New York Times, Reverend Harry Richard said, “They burned down a building. They didn’t burn down our spirit.”
Monica Harris, a Greater Union church member, told the Times, “It was heartbreaking to see what happened. Naturally, everyone is nervous and concerned.”
Morning Star Deacon Curtis Zachary told NBC News, “Let them know we’ll keep praying with a building or without a building. You can burn a building, but you can’t take us, can’t break us.”
Fire Marshal Butch Browning spoke to the congregants after the service.
“There’s a reason why I’m standing before you all. Unfortunately, the obvious reason is because there’s been a horrendous crime placed on this church and its people, but I think it’s bigger than that. You see, when this is over with, we’ve now formed a bond, and we’ve formed a purpose. And that higher purpose is to spread the good news of what our creator did to us and what he has in store for us,” Browning said, according to The Advocate. “”es, these fires are suspicious. Yes, crimes were occurred. People say, ‘Well, what happened?’ We can’t say what happened yet. When people say ‘There’s been three fires, are they connected?’ Obviously they’re connected. ‘Well, tell me how they’re connected.’ We can’t say that publicly. But at the point that we can tell the pastors, we’re going to tell them first.”
He added, “Let’s pray for the people responsible and all the churches that have surrounded and embraced you all. We’ll get that person a whole lot better help than the justice system will ever get them because we’re going to help them find God, and we’re going to use that to stop this cancer that’s going on that’s executed through crime.”