The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

St. John’s Episcopal Church, historic church next to the White House, set on fire during protests

A police line forms by St. John's Episcopal Church as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Saturday, May 30, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square across from the White House, known as the church of presidents, was set on fire on Sunday night during protests in Washington and across the nation.

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said on Sunday that she and the rector of the church, the Rev. Robert W. Fisher, were unsure what in the church building might have been touched by the fire. The fire was in the basement of the parish house, which Budde said she said holds offices and the church’s nursery. No one from the church was in the building, she said.

She said fire alarms went off in the building, but she has not been able to reach any fire department or local government leaders for more details. Fisher had been out of town for the weekend but returned to his home in Columbia Heights on Sunday due to the protests.

Budde said she stood outside the church earlier today to participate in protests where people were handing out water bottles and protesting in a civil manner.

“There are a lot of things to be heartbroken about, but obviously we wanted the church to be a place of haven and safety,” Budde said.

St. John’s Episcopal Church was built in 1815 and its first service was Oct. 27, 1816. It’s often called the “church of the presidents,” since almost every single president has attended at least one service there – since James Madison, according to a profile in The Washington Post.

St. John’s Church also features 25 historic stained glass windows, and its prominent bell was paid for in 1823 in part by the city after the church convinced officials that a bell would be useful in case of a fire, the Post reported.

Before his swearing-in ceremony, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt attended a church service at St. John’s, setting a precedent that has been followed by some of his successors, including President Trump.

President Barack Obama did not formally join a church while he was in the White House, but he attended St. John’s more than any other church during his administration. Pew 54 is considered the “President’s Pew,” reserved for the president’s use when visiting the church.

While the Obamas visit to other congregations -- especially African American ones -- would prompt hundreds of worshipers to wait in line at sunrise to attend the services, their worship at St John’s was so common, the then-Rev. Luis Leon told the Post in 2012, that the church didn’t even need to change anything.

Budde, who is from Minneapolis, said she does not condone the destruction of property, but she said she doesn’t want to lose sight of what the protests are calling for: necessary change.

“It’s a building; no one’s life is gone, but we have work to do and we’ll do it," she said. "Cleaning up, rebuild and focus on the rebulding of our country which is more important.”

CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this article were not clear about the precedent set by president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt when he attended a service at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the morning of his swearing-in. Some, but not all, of Roosevelt’s successors also worshiped at St. John’s on their inauguration days.