Federal agents have joined the investigation of a fire that ravaged and destroyed a 125-year-old landmark Catholic Church in central Texas on Monday. Firefighters responded to the blaze at the historic Church of the Visitation in Westphalia, Texas on Monday morning. While the tabernacle containing the Eucharist was saved by nearby residents, nearly everything else was destroyed, including a century-old organ and stained-glass windows imported from Germany, according to local news channel KWTX. “(It’s) extremely difficult and painful to be here,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin, who visited the scene of the fire on Monday, told KWTX. “I’m very deeply affected by this and I know the people here are also heartbroken,” he added. On Tuesday, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) joined in the investigation of the cause of the fire, which is yet unknown. Although ATF Certified Fire Investigators are called when arson is suspected, they can also be called to investigate large fires because they have access to sophisticated equipment not always available to local law enforcement agencies.
ATF examines more than 2,000 fire scenes annually. The parish had an active congregation of several hundred people, which had been planning a 125th-anniversary celebration of the building before the fire struck. According to reports, smoke from the fire that reduced the church to rubble could be seen from five miles away. Some sources told KWTX that the church, which was built in the shape of a Latin cross and had two large bell towers on either side of the entrance, was once the largest wooden building west of the Mississippi. After storms destroyed two earlier church structures in the 1880s, the Church of Visitation was completed in February of 1895 and dedicated on May 23, 1895. Its large pipe organ, which was destroyed in the fire, was built in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914 and installed in March of 1921. It was refurbished in 1979 and was played “each Sunday as well as on special occasions,” according to the church’s website.
In 1978, the Church of the Visitation was officially recognized by the State of Texas with a Texas Historical Marker. In 1996, the church and the surrounding 5,500 acres of farmland were designated as a Rural Historic District, and the church is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. “This architectural beauty is now a loss and that’s what saddens all of us here,” Vasquez told KWTX. The parish website notes that a total of 14 priests and 38 religious sisters came from the community, which currently has 185 families and some 500 parishioners. Damages from the fire are estimated to total at least $3-$4 million dollars.