St. Stephen’s Pastor reacts to the two church fires

Published: May. 24, 2023 at 7:11 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - A man is now charged in connection with the two church fires in the historic district of Douglas.

According to investigators with the Douglas Police Department, the fires were arson.

Douglas Police identified the suspect as Eric Ridenour.

He is currently in the Cochise County Jail on federal charges and is awaiting transfer to federal custody.

The fires happened at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church on Monday afternoon, May 22nd. The churches are located in the historic district of Douglas.

One neighbor who lives nearby the church said everyone in Douglas is close and he has no idea how or why this would happen to two churches so vital to the community.

He adds the fires were a complete shock for everyone living in Douglas.

Reverend John Caleb Collins, the Pastor at St. Stephen’s, said he doesn’t understand why anyone would set flames to these two historic churches.

“I really wondered and I wondered aloud a few times as I am crying and I am sad,” Rev. Collins said. “Why did the church burn? Why didn’t god protect the church?

He tells 13 News he is grateful because the situation could have been much worse.

“That’s when I really thought god did protect the church,” Rev. Collins questioned. “Our prayers were answered because the church is the people and not a single person was hurt.”

The pastor said the destruction of both the First Presbyterian Church and St. Stephen’s is heartbreaking, especially considering how much the churches play a part in the community’s everyday life.

The two churches on the same block went up in flames just moments apart.

“Thinking about the baptism that I’ve done and one of the thoughts that hit me was that some of those children and adults that were baptized were among the last in over 122 years to be baptized in this original sanctuary,” Rev. Collins said.

13 News went to the Douglas home where Ridenour reportedly lived and ran into a woman who was there at the time.

She refused to talk or answer any questions.

However, one neighbor said around 5:30 Tuesday afternoon, May 23, many police cars were seen at the property.

According to Douglas Police, this is an ongoing investigation.

“We are just trusting that they are going to be continuing the investigation,” Rev. Collins said. “If a prosecution is necessary and happens, we just trust justice will be done for our hurt community.”

Reverend Collins said they will keep meeting for Sunday services. However, those will be moved to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee.

The reverend said as of right now, there is no saying what will happen to the church, but he encourages anyone in the community who feels called to reach out to the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona to help with any monetary donation.

The Douglas Police Department is still determining a motive for the fires.

Ridenour is charged with 18 USC § 844(I), which states: “Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce...”

“It’s really sad,” Rev. Collins said. “It’s harder to wrap your mind around something that is done with intent like this.”

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