December 29, 2023

Two historic churches burned in suspected arson case in Douglas are taking steps towards rebuilding

Braces now support and surround one church; the other has been demolished

First Presbyterian Church Braces First Presbyterian Church, which was one of the churches that burned in a suspected arson case in May of 2023, has been braced to stabilize the walls. December 15, 2023.
Summer Hom, AZPM News

More than six-months after two historic churches in Douglas burned due to suspected arson, leaders of the congregations are taking steps towards rebuilding.

The block that housed Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and First Presbyterian Church in Douglas no longer looks the same. It once had two more than 100-year-old churches, side by side.

Now, only the Presbyterian church is standing

"You walk in and it’s just like — there’s no more altar, it’s all collapsed through the floor," said co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church Reverend Peggy Christiansen. "The communion table is burned and is — had fell through the floor. The walls are black, you know all the plaster has peeled off, and you can see the damage to the windows … It just looks like a war zone in there.”

May 22 was the day fire broke out at both churches.

Court documents show suspect Eric Ridenour was caught on a surveillance camera walking on and around both church properties, and exiting while smoke could be seen coming from the uninhabited, two-story residence attached to the episcopal church.

While the First Presbyterian Church still stands, Christiansen said the building’s floor and roof collapsed.

“It’s just not safe, and so, our biggest challenge has been to figure out how to brace these walls without having to go on the inside to do it," said Christiansen.

Now 30 metal braces surround and support the church’s walls.

First Presbyterian 2 First Presbyterian Church, which was one of the churches that burned in a suspected arson case in May of 2023, has been braced to stabilize the walls. December 15, 2023. Photo by Summer Hom, AZPM News.

“So these are what we call ‘dead men,’" said Christiansen, referring to the concrete bases of the braces. "What it means is dead weight basically. So then, they attached these metal polls. And as you can see, we have three layers … So these stone masons from Sun Valley Masons in Phoenix created, custom created, toggle bolts. And they’re about 20 inches long so they can go through the 18 inch wall, and on the other side, there’s a little lever that once they drill the core and drill through the wall, this little lever drops down on the other side and holds this bolt into place.”

Christiansen said the good news is that they will be able to rebuild while keeping most of the original structure.

"We know that we have three solid exterior walls to build from," she said. "It’s very exciting.”

The damage at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, house and its offices was severe enough that nothing was salvageable according to the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona Jennifer Reddall. Those structures have since been demolished but the adjacent parish hall — still stands — and now has utilities hooked up so the congregation is able to worship there.

"And that has just been just an incredible boost to the congregation’s morale and their sense of spiritual home," Reddall said. "Now, we’re about to start the process of visioning the future. Who is God calling Saint Stephen’s to be in the 21st century, and how can our ministry help the people of Douglas to better care for their neighbors and to better love each other.”

Saint Stephen's empty The lot where Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church in Douglas used to be before the suspected arson fire in May damaged the structure beyond repair. The remains of the church have been demolished and cleared. December 15, 2023.
Summer Hom, AZPM News

At the Presbyterian church the next step is to clear the debris and asbestos from inside. Bishop Reddall says the next step for Saint Stephen’s is to find an architect and meet with local government and community members.

The suspect, Eric Ridenour, is charged with six federal hate crimes including Obstruction of Free Exercise of Religious Beliefs by Fire, Using Fire to Commit Federal Felony and Arson of Property Used in Interstate Commerce.

Neighbors are quoted in the court documents saying that Ridenour believes that women and members of the LGBTQ community should not be allowed to lead prayer or have leadership positions within the church. Records note that the pastor of Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church at the time of the fire was openly gay and the current co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church is a woman.

The judge for Ridenour’s trial is waiting for the results of a psychological evaluation to assess if he is competent to stand trial. His next court appearance is set for January.

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