Arizona congregation back to worshipping on its property after May fire

By ENS Staff
Posted Jan 4, 2024

The Rev. J.J. Bernal (right, in purple), leads a December service of Holy Eucharist in the parish hall of St. Stephen’s, Douglas, Arizona. It was the first time the congregation was able to worship on its property since a May 22 fire destroyed the church building. Photo: Diocese of Arizona

[Episcopal News Service] Members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Douglas, Arizona, were able to worship on their property in December for the first time since a May 22 arson fire destroyed the church building.

A service of Holy Eucharist, led by the Rev. J.J. Bernal, St. Stephen’s vicar, took place in the refurbished parish hall, which is the only remaining parish structure. “The first Sunday in Advent was a joyous occasion,” Bernal told the Arizona Episcopalian magazine. “All of us rejoiced in the season and its blessings.”

Since last June, church services had been taking place at nearby Grace Methodist Church.

Bernal, who began leading the congregation in October, used his own communion set for the service. Other liturgical items, including crosses, candles and altar linens, had been provided by other diocesan churches or though the office of Arizona Bishop Jennifer Reddall.

The city of Douglas, a local contractor and various utilities “went out of their way to help us get back” onto church property, Bernal said. He and church members also are beginning to discuss necessary first steps toward rebuilding the church.

In October, two hate crime charges were added to two counts of arson filed against Eric Ridenour, who was accused of setting the fires that destroyed St. Stephen’s and the neighboring First Presbyterian Church in Douglas, a town of about 16,000 people located on the U.S.-Mexican border.

A grand jury alleged that Ridenour “intentionally started the fires in both churches because of his hostility toward their progressive doctrines, particularly their practice of having women and members of the LGBTQ community serve as church leaders.”