Philadelphia Church fire: the historic St. Leo the Great Catholic Church on Unruh Avenue in Tacony destroyed by fire

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PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) – A historic church in the Tacony section of Philadelphia caught fire on Sunday afternoon.

The fire broke out around 5:30 p.m. Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Leo the Great near Unruh Avenue and Keystone Street.

Thick smoke billowed into the sky as flames ripped through the vacant property built in 1884.

Suzanne McErlain Vrana captured video of the flames shooting through the roof of the church as she headed south on I-95.

The blaze went through two alarms before being brought under control shortly after 7 p.m.

St. Leo’s merged with Our Lady of Consolation in 2013. The church closed in 2019 as a place of worship and was subsequently added to the historical register of the city.

The former church pastor told Action News that the historic structure had just been sold last month and was going to be rented out for use by religious groups.

No injuries were reported, but the flames spread to the old rectory next door, displacing the family who live there.

Dozens of neighbors gathered across the street, watching in disbelief.

“People say a church is a building, but St. Leo was more than that to us. We did all of our sacraments here,” said Ann Marie Kuvik of Port Richmond.

As the church burned down, people shared wedding photos from the 1960s, class photos from St. Leo Catholic School, and childhood memories.

“Our Christmas competitions, my dad sang in the choir,” said Kathy Clohessey of Tacony.

“This church, this whole school is a very big part of our childhood. It’s very sad. It’s heartbreaking to see that today,” said Matthew Clemons, who was an altar boy at St. Leo’s.

When Mary Tobin heard the news, she grabbed a Saint Leo the Great prayer card which she kept nearby.

“When that happened I just grabbed it, put it in my pocket and went downstairs,” she said.

Many of Tobin’s family were involved in St. Leo’s.

“It hurts my heart, especially on Mother’s Day. Both of my parents are deceased, so seeing that makes you feel a bit sick, you know?” Tobin said.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said that although the church had not been in use for some time, it would help afterwards.

“The Archdiocese is working to help the leaders of the parish meet this challenge and the relief that will be available through the insurance must be determined in the coming days,” said Ken Gavin, spokesperson for the archdiocese.

There is no immediate word on what started the fire.

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