A large cross that adorned the top of the steeple sank into the smoke, as flames shot through the roof and within minutes engulfed the belfry of the century-old church.
Eighty firefighters were on scene and knocked down the blaze in 41 minutes.
Doris Smith had just arrived for her bible study class when she noticed the flames.
"I'm crying inside of my heart," Smith said. "I went in the sanctuary and sat down. All of a sudden we saw the orange flames and got out of there."
Capt. Steve Ruda of the Los Angeles City Fire Department said the fire started in an empty lot next to the church and then spread to a nearby apartment building. Most of the damage was done when the flames jumped onto the church.
"Luckily, we had a couple of extra fire engines that were getting fuel at the closest fire station," Ruda said. "We had enough resources here rapidly to get on scene, and they needed all the help they could get."
An arson team from the Los Angeles fire department, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating as a matter of policy any time a church catches fire.
"That is our response to the churches of Los Angeles," Ruda said. "To see if in fact someone is there disrespecting our churches, our synagogues, our mosques."
Witnesses reported seeing a man fleeing the scene, but investigators said it's too early to tell if the fire was intentionally set.
Parishioners are turning to their faith for strength.
"Nothing is done without the knowledge of God so I'm cool with it," said one parishioner.