Man Arrested for Arson at Churches Near the Mexico Border

Photos from St. Stephen's website and Facebook

By Kirk Petersen

Arson is suspected in simultaneous fires that consumed two century-old churches in the border town of Douglas, Arizona, and an arrest has been made, according to the local police.

Fires were reported late Monday morning at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and at First Presbyterian Church, and burned through the day and into the night. The two churches are separated only by a narrow alley, but officials said from the beginning that the blazes started independently.

The churches sit less than a mile up D Avenue from a wall topped by concertina wire, and a bit more than a mile from the port of entry on Pan American Avenue that connects to the Mexican town of Agua Prieta (“black water”). Both churches have played an active role in providing support for migrants and asylum-seekers, and the priest at the Episcopal church told TLC he is concerned that the churches may have been targeted for that reason.

“It’s a fear,” said the Rev. John Caleb Collins, who has been vicar of the mission congregation for about three years. “I hope not.”

“Our rectory is completely burned and our sanctuary is completely burned,” Collins said. “Only the skeletal structure of the building remains. Everything — the icons, the stained-glass windows, the vestments, the pews — everything was completely consumed in the flames.” The parish hall does not appear to have sustained significant damage, he said, but parishioners have not yet had access to the building.

In a Facebook post, the Rev. Peggy Christiansen, co-minister at First Presbyterian, said the fire there was initially contained, but reignited in the middle of the night, collapsing the roof.

Eric Ridenour | Cochise County Sheriff’s Office

The Douglas Police Department said Eric Ridenour, 58, who lives near Douglas, had been arrested without incident on suspicion of arson. No motive has been established.

Bishop of Arizona Jennifer Reddall drove four hours from Phoenix to help lead an outdoor prayer service across the street Monday evening, even as the fires continued to burn. She told TLC on May 24 she had been briefed that morning by the detective in charge of the case, who said the suspect was captured with the help of surveillance camera recordings.

“The person who was arrested is not somebody who’s known to us, so we have no idea of what his motivation was,” she said. “I’m grateful for the speed of the investigation.”

Collins said the local United Methodist and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregations had contacted him to offer the use of their worship spaces. There is no estimate of the dollar cost of the damage, but Reddall said the church is insured and the Church Insurance Company has been very responsive. The diocese has established a web page to accept donations for St. Stephen’s for costs not covered by insurance.

St. Stephen’s is believed to be closer to the Mexican border than any other church in the country, Collins said, and the parish reflects that — it holds one service every Sunday, which is fully bilingual. Collins said when he first arrived to serve as vicar, he offered to start having separate English and Spanish services, as he speaks both languages fluently. “Everyone on both sides of the language aisle said no,” that they wanted to continue with a single service, he said. “This congregation really is intentional about being a unifier.”

No injuries were reported at either church. “We always pray for the safety of the church,” Collins said, but he told his parishioners not to wonder why God didn’t protect the church. “No single person was hurt. And since the church is the people, I said, the prayer was answered that day. … Our sanctuary can be rebuilt.”


Online Archives