‘Heartbreak’ for Viola parishioners as fire extensively damages St. John Church

The sanctuary of St. John Church in Viola after the early morning fire on May 27.

(This story was updated on June 1.)

VIOLA — Father John Thieryoung is asking for prayers for a 12-year-old male who has been charged with a single count of arson in a fire that caused extensive damage to St. John Church here on May 27.

When parishioners gathered for Mass at nearby St. Anthony Church in Matherville on May 29, he also asked them not to hold any bitterness toward the boy.

“He needs God’s help to get his life in order,” said Father Thieryoung, pastor of the Viola and Matherville faith communities, as well as St. Catherine in Aledo.

The Mercer County Sheriff’s Office reported receiving a 911 call about the fire at the church, 1101 21st Ave., at about 5 a.m. on May 27. Fire departments from Viola, Matherville and Aledo, as well as Genesis Ambulance, assisted at the scene.

“The people are, of course, heartbroken,” said Father Thieryoung, pastor, pictured outside St. John Church in Viola on May 27 following the early morning fire that extensively damaged the church. (For The Catholic Post/Robin Heiar)

Father Thieryoung said much of the fire was located at the entrance to the church, where the sacristy and restrooms are located, and that the sanctuary was also involved. He told The Catholic Post they were able to recover the tabernacle and he consumed the Blessed Sacrament inside.

There was not estimate for the damage at press time. The investigation continues.

While it is too early to tell what will be done to rebuild, members of St. John Parish will continue to go to the Matherville church for Mass on Saturdays at 4:30 p.m.

This is the second worship space in the Diocese of Peoria to be affected by a deliberately set fire in the last month. There was an early morning fire at St. Mary Church in Lexington on April 28. In addition, the Women’s Care Center — a pro-life outreach in Peoria — was destroyed by an arson fire on May 3.


“The people are, of course, heartbroken,” Father Thieryoung said. “I don’t have the experience, but these people do, of having one parish for your whole life or one parish for the most foundational moments of your life.”

Adding to their grief is that many former parishioners were expected to return to Viola for the annual Memorial Day Mass at St. John’s Cemetery. He said they traditionally visit relatives, as well as decorate graves.

“The tragedy of the church burning down is more heartbreaking in that sense,” Father Thieryoung said.

St. John in Viola and St. Anthony in Matherville, which is only five miles away, have been linked for much of their history. That will help as St. Anthony hosts its neighbors from St. John for Mass.

The damage to the entrance of St. John Church in Viola is seen from the interior after the May 27 fire. (For The Catholic Post/Robin Heiar)

St. John Parish was established in 1885 and the fledgling community’s first spiritual home was a church they purchased from the Congregational Church and Society. It was remodeled in 1927 and 1967, but parishioners determined that they needed more space.

The current church was designed as a multipurpose liturgical center and dedicated on Oct. 27, 1974, by Bishop Edward W. O’Rourke.

In addition to Mass, the building also served as a meeting site for Cursillo reunion groups, Father Thieryoung said. They had just been getting back to that after the pandemic.

In addition to Sheriff Dusty Terrill and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, the investigation has included members of the Viola Police, Illinois State Police Crime Scene Services, and the Illinois Fire Marshall’s Office.

EDITOR’S NOTE: More photos have been posted to an album on The Catholic Post’s Facebook site.



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