Vito Maggiolo, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said the man was pronounced dead at the scene. Maggiolo said the fire extended into the social hall but resulted in minimal damage. The cause remained under investigation Saturday.
Authorities did not immediately identify the victim pending notification of relatives.
The Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, the church’s senior minister and pastor, said the man had slept in the social hall’s doorway for the past year and had rebuffed many attempts, by the pastor and worshipers, to persuade him to go to a shelter or find a better place to live.
Smith said the man bedded down in a small alcove outside the door. “He had taken up that place as his home,” the pastor said. “We allowed him to use that space.”
The man accepted food from the social hall, Smith said, and would sometimes listen to the choir during services at the church, one of the oldest African American churches in the District. At least four presidents have worshiped there over the decades.
“He was very polite and intelligent,” said Smith, who never learned the man’s name. “You could tell he was quite intelligent. He didn’t sound like somebody who was not in touch with reality. He was very guarded. He would come in and sit down and listen to a song, but then would go back out.”
Smith said he last saw the man three weeks ago when the minister came to live-stream a Sunday service. The church has been closed during the coronavirus crisis. “He was trying to come into the church and of course we weren’t having services,” Smith said.
The minister said church officials went to the fire scene early Saturday and spoke with fire investigators and police detectives. He said he suspects the man was trying to keep warm, though a definitive cause has not been determined. Smith said church officials plan to assess damage to the hall over the weekend.
The pastor said he plans to incorporate the man’s death into his Easter sermon, which will be live-streamed over the Internet.
“I’m talking about resurrecting life and resurrecting joy in these sad times,” Smith said.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.