UPDATED: Arizona Episcopal church on the US-Mexico border destroyed by fire

By Melodie Woerman
Posted May 24, 2023

Flames burn through the roof of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Douglas Arizona, in a May 22 fire that destroyed the building. Photo: Brad Munroe

Editor’s note: A suspect was arrested and charged with arson in connection to the fires on May 24. 

[Episcopal News Service] A late morning fire destroyed St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Douglas, Arizona, on May 22. A church-owned house next door also was destroyed. First Presbyterian Church, next door to the church house, also suffered severe fire damage. No one was injured. The cause of the blazes that hit both buildings remains under investigation, Arizona Bishop Jennifer Reddall told Episcopal News Service on May 23.

The fire at St. Stephen’s was discovered at about 11 a.m. on May 22, with flames visible both in the church and the church house. Minutes later observers noticed that the Presbyterian church also was on fire. The co-minister of First Presbyterian, the Rev. Peggy Christiansen, told a Tucson TV station that the two fires appear to have begun separately. “As the day went on, we were told [our] fire did not start from the Episcopal church. But rather, it was an independent fire. Somehow our fire started inside our church, and theirs started in theirs,” she said.

In a May 23 email to the diocese, Reddall said local police and fire officials and representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, began investigating the evening of the fire.

The Rev. John Caleb Collins, vicar of St. Stephen’s, leads a prayer on the evening of the fire across the street from the burned church. Photo: Jennifer Reddall

Douglas is a town of about 16,000 people located on the U.S.-Mexican border. The town’s mayor, Donald Huish, on May 23 told a Tucson TV station that the origin of the two fires “does look suspicious.”

St. Stephen’s church itself is a total loss, Reddall said. “The walls caved in,” she told ENS.  The office was heavily damaged and the church house also was a total loss. The parish hall is still standing and appears to be intact, although until there is access to the building, that remains unclear, she added.

Reddall made the four-hour trip from Phoenix to Douglas for a 7 p.m. English-Spanish bilingual prayer service on May 22. She joined the church’s vicar, the Rev. John Caleb Collins, on the street across from the church building to offer prayers and to give thanks for both congregations’ decades of ministry – 122 years for St. Stephen’s and 119 years for First Presbyterian. They were joined by members of both churches, residents of Douglas and the pastor of Grace United Methodist Church. That church, along with First Baptist Church and the two burned churches, occupy the four corners of one square city block.

In her email to the diocese, Reddall said that those who gathered “shared our sure and certain hope that while church buildings can be gutted by fire, the true church, the church of the people of God, cannot be burned down.” But she noted, “that does not take away the deep grief and loss of a space made sacred by generations of baptisms, Eucharists, quinceañeras, weddings and burials.”

The shell of St. Stephen’s stands after the fire was extinguished. Photo: Arizona Bishop Jennifer Reddall

St. Stephen’s is a small congregation, Reddall told ENS, that is both bilingual and bicultural and has in the past been active, along with First Presbyterian, in providing a place where people who have crossed the border can stay before traveling north to Tucson. “That’s part of the identity of both these places,” the bishop said.

Reddall said in her email to the diocese that she will be joining the congregation for worship on May 28 at 11:30 a.m. at St. John’s in Bisbee, about 30 miles northwest of Douglas, and invited others to join them as well.

She added that no plans for the future of the building can be made until investigators release the buildings, but the diocese is seeking donations to help the St. Stephen’s community.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.