The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fire set at historic St. John’s church during protests of George Floyd’s death

D.C. protests organized in reaction to George Floyd’s death continued on May 31. Multiple fires broke out, including one at historic St. John’s Church. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

A fire was set in the basement nursery of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House, during demonstrations Sunday night expressing outrage at the death of George Floyd in police custody.

Although the protests were largely peaceful in the afternoon and evening, small groups of people began setting fires and smashing windows once darkness fell.

Shortly after 10 p.m., someone tore down the American flag that hangs outside the butter-yellow church and appeared to toss the flag into a nearby fire. A glass door or window was shattered.

A person sprayed graffiti: “The Devil is across [the] street.”

D.C. police said a small fire was deliberately set in the basement. Under police escort, D.C. firefighters quickly extinguished it. Fire department spokesman Vito Maggiolo said the blaze did not appear to cause any significant damage.

“I guess God was on its side,” Maggiolo said. “It didn’t seem to have spread very much.”

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said the fire was in the basement nursery of the parish house. There are offices in the basement as well.

No one from the church was in the building, she said. The fire was was started through a window, by some sort of fire igniter. When she visited the church Monday morning, the damage had been contained, graffiti had been cleaned up, and the federal Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms was investigating.

“It’s heart-rending,” the Rev. Robert W. Fisher, church rector, said Sunday night. “This is a very historic building.”

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.” According to the church website, every president since James Madison has attended at least one service there.

Pew 54 is considered the “President’s Pew,” reserved for the president’s use when visiting the church.

Budde said she had stood outside the church earlier Sunday to participate in the demonstrations, when 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,” she said.

Before his swearing-in ceremony, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt attended a service at St. John’s, setting a precedent that has been followed by presidents ever since, 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 time in office.

Budde is from Minneapolis, the city where Floyd died last week when a police officer trapped him on the asphalt by placing a knee on the back of his neck, even after Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.

The bishop said she does not condone the destruction of property, but also doesn’t want to lose sight of what the protests are calling for in the wake of Floyd’s death: 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 rebuilding of our country which is more important.”

Rachel Chason, Petula Dvorak and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.