Monday morning, a fire broke out at St. Stephen’s Church in Douglas, severely damaging the 110-year old structure before spreading to nearby First Presbyterian Church on the same block.
First Presbyterian, also more than a century old, was seemingly sparred by the flames and suffered mainly smoke damage. Then later that night, additional fire activity resulted in structural damage.
Both buildings are likely a complete loss.
Two days later, local police and federal agents made an arrest, saying their investigation led them to believe the fires had been intentionally set by suspect Eric Ridenour, 58.
Douglas Mayor Donald Huish was attending a bi-national environmental meeting in Nogales Wednesday, but said he remained in contact with Douglas Police Chief Kraig Fullen when he spoke to me from Nogales via Zoom.
“They’re building the case,” Huish told me. “They feel comfortable with it and they’re building the case that he was the individual that started the fires.”
Huish says they don’t know why the suspect may have started the fires.
Pat: “Did anybody know of any threats or anything like that?” Mayor Donald Huish: “We did not Pat. He’s been in our community, we understand, about four years now and don’t know any of the reasons why right now, that he may have been motivated to carry out this heinous act.”
Douglas police say they executed a search warrant at Ridenour’s home, a property that includes a trailer home, as well as a small church located behind it.
We met one of his neighbors who says Ridenour just completed that church on his property about four months ago, but never opened it for any services.
Ridenour’s neighbor Marcia didn’t want us to use her last name, but did speak to us, saying she never saw anything from Ridenour to suggest he would commit arson.
“We just thought it was weird and very shocking,” she told me.
Douglas neighbors reflect on Ridenour arrest
Huish says the Douglas community has been living through a bad dream, with the loss of these two historic churches.
“But the reality is that they’re gone. We’re going to have to accept it,” said Huish. “I’m still not there yet myself, personally. It’s very difficult to envision that beautiful part of our community without those two buildings.”
St. Stephen’s Episocpal and First Presbyterian Churches were two of four churches on the blockthe two remaining being First Baptist Church and Grace Methodist Churchthat made up the historic landmark ‘Church Square,’ recognized by the Douglas Historical Society as possibly the only block in the country with four churches of different denominations.
Both churches have announced services at alternate locations:
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church temporary services: To be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee 9 Sowles Ave. Sundays at 11:30 a.m. Until further notice First Presbyterian Church service: To be held in Castro Park across the street from church building at 1020 D Ave. Sunday, May 28 at 10 a.m. Church recommends bringing lawn chairs, shade and water
Huish also said a vigil is planned for Monday evening, May 29 at 6:30 in Castro Park. According to the mayor, the vigil will be a chance for community members to come together and begin the healing process.