Dozens of neighbors looked on as a contractor took a wrecking ball to St. Leo The Great Roman Catholic Church on Keystone Street and Unruh Avenue on Monday, many of them saying goodbye to a church that has hosted generations of their families.
The fire left a freestanding wall facing Keystone Street, which the fire marshal said posed an imminent danger to the neighborhood and prevented investigators from getting inside to try and determine the fire's cause.
"Pretty heartbroken to see this. This is like part of my life, part of my history and it's gone," said Michael Riley, who has lived in the neighborhood for decades and graduated from St. Leo's.
"I turned around, I could see the sadness in people's eyes and people filling up with sadness," said Councilman Bobby Henon.
The fire tore through the historic church starting 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
One hundred firefighters battled the flames for hours as much of the church burned to the ground. No one was hurt, but L&I did deem the building unsafe following the flames.
"I was heartsick seeing it on the news, but seeing it in person was sad, and remembering everything that was so beautiful in there," said Barbara Helverson Kemery.
As she watched crews knock down her church, memories flooded back.
"My sister being married here walking down the aisle, my mom was buried from this church, making my communion going years back," she said.
The church first opened in 1884 and was active until 2013 when the archdiocese consolidated parishes. For the next six years, community members could still worship inside, but the doors closed in 2019. One month ago, a developer bought the building.
Neighbors say there is a time capsule from 1984 inside next to the cornerstone. The fire marshal says once it is safe to get in, crews will recover that for the neighborhood so they will always have a piece of their church.