NEW ORLEANS | With a sheriff’s deputy’s son behind bars accused of arson, worshippers at three charred, historically black churches in St. Landry Parish might be expected to have a bitter Holy Week.
In fact, they have not. If anything, the alleged arsons have strengthened the community, generating an outpouring of support locally and across the nation: An online campaign was closing in on $2 million in pledges for repairs on Thursday.
“Last week was a bad week, but this week is much, much better,” said Pastor Freddie Jack, president of the 7th District Missionary Baptist Association. “We now know we cannot only rebuild and replace, but we can make it bigger and better. And it’s going to get better.”
The church fires had rattled the heart of Cajun Country. Two of them — Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and the Greater Union Baptist Church — are in Opelousas, the county seat of St. Landry Parish, a town of fewer than 17,500 people famous for its food and music.
“We’re a peaceable, a calm community,” Opelousas Mayor Julius Alsandor said. “But each one of these churches were more than 100 years old, and you can only imagine the nostalgia and memories many families associated with them.”
Greater Union went up in flames early April 2 and Mount Pleasant on April 4 in fires that authorities called suspicious. Those suspected arsons occurred after St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre was torched on March 26.
With Palm Sunday approaching and the African-American Baptist community of St. Landry in fear, a task force of local, state and federal officials announced April 10 they had made an arrest in the case.
Holden Matthews, 21, the son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy, is charged with three counts of simple arson and is being held without bond.
Meanwhile, the Opelousas community and the world have sprung into action.
First, local car dealer Bob Giles held a press conference with Mr. Alsandor and promised to match donations up to $50,000 for rebuilding the churches. That account now stands at $48,000, Mr. Giles said, “and hopefully it will go well beyond that.”
“When the churches first burned and it was apparent arson, I tried to figure out some way to get the business community to contribute,” Mr. Giles said. “And then one morning when I was getting dressed, thinking about it, and I said, ‘I have to do something,’ and I decided right then I’d donate up to $50,000.”
Even more overwhelming than the local effort was a GoFundMe account set up by journalist Yashar Ali, who was struck by the outpouring of financial support that came in the immediate aftermath of the fire that devastated the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday.
Mr. Ali set a goal of $1.8 million in pledges — and donations blew past that, nearing $2 million by Thursday evening.
Still, the sight of churches ablaze in the Deep South is a deeply troubling one.
“You can’t say that there aren’t some facts that history dictates here, things that you and I are both aware of, as is the broader community,” Mr. Alsandor said. “But we are trying to look at this with open eyes.”
The fact that authorities have attributed the alleged arsons to one apparently disturbed young man rather than an organized effort seems to have helped assuage feelings in the community, local leaders said.
“This is a Christian community and we are approaching it that way,” Mr. Jack said. “There is no hatred toward this young man, and in fact the pastors at all the Baptist churches including St. Mary’s, Greater Union and Mount Pleasant, have all prayed for his forgiveness.”
Louisiana has filed three hate crime charges against Mr. Matthews, who pleaded not guilty in a court proceeding with his parents in attendance.
Police say Mr. Matthews’ phone contained photos of the churches aflame and as smoking ruins and he superimposed pictures of himself over accounts of the fires.
The fires all used gasoline as an accelerant, authorities say, adding that they recovered from one scene a two-gallon red gas tank that they can prove Mr. Matthews bought at an Opelousas Walmart on March 25.
The motive for the fires remains unclear. Local press accounts have referred to Mr. Matthews’ affinity for “black metal,” a rock’n’roll subgenre, as well as a 2018 Norwegian horror movie tied to the genre called “Lords of Chaos,” the British release of which featured a flaming church in its promotional posters.