The future of Douglas’ historic churches

Published: Aug. 23, 2023 at 11:04 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - It’s been months since two historic churches in Douglas were razed by fire and the community is still trying to recover from the ashes.

The fire at these historic sanctuaries caused major damage and forever changed Douglas’ town square. It is believed to be the only block in the county to have a church on each corner, all with different denominations.

The original goal was to restore both St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church to their former glory. However, because the damage was so intense, those hoping to restore the places of worship tell 13 News it just isn’t possible.

According to Reverend John Caleb Collins, the leader of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the demolition of the over-one-hundred-year-old sanctuary has already begun.

“Right now, it doesn’t look like anything will be able to be returned exactly as it was,” Collins said.

Even though the community is doing its best to move forward, the emotions they carry will stay with them for a while. Rev. Collins believes there is hope for the church’s resurrection in the ashes.

“We’re a people of resurrection, so we are a people of joy,” Rev. Collins said. That means we are a people for hope for new life.”

It’s that hope the congregation is leaning on to keep the faith alive.

Reverend Collins said even during these difficult months, there have been signs God is still with them through a miracle.

“Finding the contacts of the Columbarium unburnt and intact is nothing short of a miracle,” Collins said. “You could see how hot the metal got, and melted, and yet the wood was not burnt at all. The plastic that contained the cremains wasn’t discolored. Obviously, I can’t explain one way that God is saying, you know it’s the people that matter.”

Rick Bokal the project manager for Commercial Cleaning and Restoration said he was in disbelief when he was able to recover those urns. When he found the columbarium he was shocked the religious object had no fire damage.

Bokal said the finding was surprising considering they were found on the west side of the church which was the heart of the flames.

“When I entered the church since I’m a believer myself I asked God if he could lead the way and he led me right back section,” Bokal said. “I noticed it and I the delaminated wood there from the heat and all that fire and everything I just started pulling it apart and I saw that’s for the urns.”

The sanctuary’s cross which sat on its altar, the church’s bell, and its ambry, (where the Eucharist rests) also remained untouched by the flames.

“We are experiencing some of those miracles,” Collins said. “We are finding things that are surprising and yes we believe that god is using those moments to help inspire faith in not only ourselves but in the community.”

In July, the church held a deconsecration led by its Bishop. This is where members come together to give thanks and say goodbye to the old while welcoming the new.

“A deconsecration is basically saying ‘it’s okay’ that it’s going to be demolished,” Rev. Collins said. “It’s also a reminder that the people are the church and we will be able to concentrate on a new sanctuary when that time comes.”

Now, the hope is to have St. Stephen’s fully demolished by mid-September. According to Reverend Collins, the future is already being discussed.

Although details are limited, the plan is to build a new sanctuary where the old once sat. He said once the demolition is complete the goal is to move their services back to the parish hall. This is a part of the church which was not touched by the fire.

On Monday, August 28th, officials will meet to talk about the First Presbyterian Church, which includes conversations about demolition.

“It’s a miracle we can see in our daily lives. Where something you don’t expect happens and it’s just right when you needed to be,” Reverend Collins said. “I think that’s how God works in our lives, God is present even in difficult times.”

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