The incident began at around 1:15 p.m. Friday afternoon at St. John the Evangelist church on Ocean Avenue.
Suffolk County Police Chief Timothy Sini said a retired NYPD sergeant saw the man, later identified as 42-year-old John Beneventano, of Shirley, trying to set a vehicle on fire in the church’s parking lot and called 911.
“We saw a gentleman with a gas can, he was pouring it all over the parking lot. And my wife said, ‘What is that guy doing over there?’ Seconds later, we saw a police officer pull in with a fire extinguisher and put it out,” one resident told CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan. “While we sat here and watched, the gentleman who the police man was putting the fire out for took off and ran inside the building.”
Responding officers followed him inside the church, where he allegedly threw a gas can at the officers and tried to set them on fire, Sini said. The officers were not hurt.
Sini said Beneventano then lit a match and started a fire inside the church.
Police used a robot to open the door and search for explosive devices.
Hours later, Sini said the man had died inside.
“At this point, his death appears to be a suicide,” he said.
Sini also said police had “no reason to believe there’s anyone else inside.”
Bishop John Barres, Bishop, Diocese of Rockville Centre, released a statement Friday night, calling it a “sad day.”
“Today is a sad day for all of us on Long Island and in particular, the parish of Saint John the Evangelist in Center Moriches. We pray for the individual involved and his family. We also pray for healing in the days ahead for the St. John the Evangelist parish community,” it read in part.
He also said all masses and services will now be held in the school auditorium.
There was a large police presence at the scene, including armored vehicles and officers with tactical gear.
“It’s terrible. It’s a wonderful community, and whatever is troubling somebody to do something like this, it’s terrible, it’s really terrible,” a woman said. “Our prayers got out to everybody involved.”
“Unbelievable, unbelievable. We’re a little town. This doesn’t happen here,” another said.
“It’s such a small community, everyone’s like family here. It’s weird, it’s crazy,” a woman added.
Police closed Main Street between Railroad Avenue and Reeves Road due to the incident. Schools in the area were also dismissed early.