ST. LOUIS (AP) — An arsonist set fire to the rectory doors of a 172-year-old Catholic church early Thursday, marking the seventh attempt to burn a place of worship in the St. Louis area in two weeks, police said.
Authorities said an emergency responder used a fire extinguisher to snuff flames apparently fueled by an accelerant on the heavy, wooden front door of the rectory at the stately Shrine of St. Joseph church, near downtown. No one was injured, and the rectory was unoccupied when the blaze was reported about 1:30 a.m., St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson said.
Police Chief Sam Dotson has said the churches that have been set alight since Oct. 8 vary denominationally, and until early Thursday the fires were within a few miles of each other and in largely black neighborhoods. But the latest blaze involved a church outside the radius of the previous fires, and local media outlets reported that Shrine of St. Joseph Church's congregation is largely white.
In every case, the front doors were ignited, leaving damage that ranged from virtually nothing at one church to the near destruction of another.
Jenkerson told reporters Thursday that the blaze at the Shrine of St. Joseph was "very similar" to the other church fires, speculating that the attacks could be motivated by a disagreement or mental illness. Fire Capt. Garon Mosby, a spokesman for the department, has said the possibility that the fires are hate crimes — for religious or racial reasons — "is part of the dynamic" of the investigation.
"We don't know at this time," Jenkerson said.
The Associated Press has left messages seeking comment and information about the investigation with Dotson, the Shrine of St. Joseph Church's pastor and the investigation-assisting U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
On Tuesday, Dotson said police planned to step up patrols and investigators were trying to develop profiles of possible suspects in connection with the blazes. Thursday's fire was the first since Sunday.
The area is still stinging from last year's police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, and a grand jury's subsequent decision not to charge the officer who shot him. Brown was black and unarmed when he was shot by white Darren Wilson in a case that spurred the national "Black Lives Matter" movement scrutinizing police treatment of minorities.
Rewards totaling $9,000 have been offered for information leading to the arrest of anyone responsible for the church fires, which Gov. Jay Nixon has condemned as "cowardly acts" and "deeply troubling."
The Shrine of St. Joseph's website calls that church the site of the Midwest's only Vatican-authenticated miracle — the 1860s case of a sick immigrant reportedly healed by kissing a relic of a future saint, Peter Claver.