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Investigators look into cause of fire at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Phoenix

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- St. Joseph's Catholic Church in north Phoenix was gutted by an overnight fire and investigators are looking into the cause.

[WATCH: Wooden cross still stands at Phoenix church destroyed by fire]

More than 60 firefighters responded to the fire near 40th Street and Shea Boulevard sometime after midnight Wednesday.

[SLIDESHOW: Fire ravages St. Joseph's Catholic Church in north Phoenix]

The Phoenix Fire Department said when fire crews first arrived, they found an extensive fire inside the church that was growing rapidly.

[VIDEO: North Phoenix church goes up in flames overnight]

After firefighters gained access inside the church and attempted to contain the fire, it spread to the attic and began burning through the roof of the church.

Linda Sunshine was getting ready for bed when the sirens alerted her to the fire.

[WATCH: St. Joseph's Catholic Church ravaged by fire in north Phoenix]

"I scurried out the front door, looked out, saw the squad car stopped at the corner, turned around and looked at the church and I could see smoke and flames going through the roof of the church," she said.  

The Phoenix Fire Department said fire crews determined it was unsafe to fight the fire from inside and switched to a defensive strategy because of the volume of the fire.

"Our crews were unable to make an attack on the fire safely," said Capt. Danny Gile. "In our world, minutes are a long time. It's a very unsafe operation for us."

Fire crews continued to battle the flames for over an hour, preventing it from spreading to other nearby buildings of the church.

"We never want to lose these buildings, especially a church," said Gile. "They are such a beacon of hope for our community."

[WATCH: Congregation standing together]

"It's a great congregation, very friendly people," said Sunshine. "It's a travesty."

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St. Joseph Parish was set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in August.

The cause of the fire is currently unknown. The Phoenix Police Department initially said the fire was being investigated as arson, but they later back-tracked saying it was too early to determine.

The Phoenix Fire Department is working closely with the ATF but the investigation could take several days. Investigators will be out at 8 a.m. to continue the fire investigation.

Phoenix police said they are also looking into vandalism at a Presbyterian church and a school in the area. But there's no evidence those cases are connected.

"No injuries were reported and no physical evidence links these two scenes to each other, or the church fire that occurred nearby," said a statement from Phoenix police.

No firefighters were injured while battling the blaze. 

St. Joseph Parish was set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in August.

"It just breaks my heart," said Sunshine. "It's a staple to the neighborhood."

The parish broke ground on the church in January of 1972 and the multi-purpose building was completed in October of that year, according to its website.

Weekly mass, confessions and other church activities are hosted at the church. 

[SLIDESHOW: Fire ravages St. Joseph's Catholic Church in north Phoenix]

On Thursday, many church members stopped by to get their first look at the damage.

"I just came down to see what the destruction was," said Rosanna Thill. "It's just beyon words for me."

Chuck Boll has been coming to the church with his family for nearly 20 years.

"My grandkids, they all cam eto church for communion and got their releigious education here," said Boll. "This place means a lot, not just to my family, but many families. It's heartbreaking."

If you'd like information about how to donate to the church to help it rebuild, the church has posted a link on its website.

The Diocese of Phoenix Statement released the following statement about the fire:

"This morning we awoke to the tragic news of the fire at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Phoenix.

The Phoenix Fire Department is investigating the fire. The church building was destroyed and there were no injuries. We will have more to share as it becomes available.

We are heartbroken for the St. Joseph Catholic community and we are grateful for the bravery of the fire fighters and first responders.

There are tentative plans to celebrate Masses somewhere on the church property this weekend.

Today on this feast day of St. Joseph the Worker, we ask the community to join us in prayer."

 


Copyright 2019 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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