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One year later: A look back at the fires that devastated two pieces of Douglas history

Posted: 4:10 PM, May 22, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-23 20:30:19-04

Today, Wednesday, May 22, marks one year since fires ripped through St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and First Presbyterian Church in Douglas.

First Presbyterian will be holding a service in Castro Park, 700 E. Tenth St., starting at 6 p.m, that will serve as both a memorial and celebration, according to its Facebook page.

Church leaders have been working to save what's left of their church, while St. Stephen's Episcopal demolished what remained of their sanctuary earlier this year.

"It feels like it was a few weeks ago, and it feels like it was a decade ago," Peggy Christiansen, pastor at First Presbyterian, told Alexis Ramanjulu this week. "It's been a rollercoaster."

'A punch in the gut'

Pastor Christiansen was on the scene when firefighters were working to put out the blaze at First Presbyterian. She told Alexis last May that she witnessed the firefighters breaking through the church's stained glass windows.

“When I first got here it was a complete punch in the gut," she said. "I walked from that way and I saw them breaking into the glass windows. Those stained glass windows are historic, and they’re kinda part of the identity of the church.”


Both churches suffered extensive damage.

Douglas Mayor Donald Huish told KGUN last May that the Douglas community has been living through a bad dream, with the loss of the two historic structures.

"But the reality is that they're gone. We're going to have to accept it," Huish said. "I'm still not there yet myself, personally. It's very difficult to envision that beautiful part of our community without those two buildings."

The days that followed

Both churches were holding services a week after the fires.

More than 100 people attended St. Stephen's first service, held in at St. John's Episcopal Church in Bisbee, Caleb Collins, then Vicar of St. Stephen's, told Alexis.

“The important thing is there is a future," Collins said of the church. "It’s not a question, 'Is there a future for St. Stephen’s?' The question is...'What will it look like? What will any future development look like?'”


A suspect apprehended

ATF special agents, in collaboration with local law enforcement agencies, worked quickly to apprehend a suspect.

Security footage from a nearby daycare center revealed a blue Pontiac Aztec pulling into the alleyway next to St. Stephen's Episcopal Church the day of the fire; its driver moving on foot between St. Stephen's and First Presbyterian.

The fires followed.

ATF agents identified the suspect as 58-year-old Eric Ridenour, a resident of Douglas, Arizona, as the registered owner of the blue Pontiac Aztec.

A search warrant served on Ridenour's home found the presence of accelerants on pants and shoes that matched the clothes worn in the surveillance video, within the house. A green hat similar to the one worn in the video was also found in Ridenour's car.

Ridenour was detained, then arrested on suspicion of setting the fires.


Ridenour was indicted in October on six counts, including arson of property used in interstate commerce, obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs by fire, and using fire to commit federal felony. The indictments alleged that hostility toward the churches' progressive doctrines drove his actions, particularly their practice of having women and members of the LGBTQ community serve as church leaders.

After several mental competency hearings, Ridenour was found to be competent in April to stand trial and represent himself. The trial begins July 8.

Months later

By August, the demolition of St. Stephen's was underway. The remains have since been knocked down and hauled away


“I think the first part of the clean up, when they actually exposed the middle of the church was harder on me, personally, than the fire,” said Jacquie Phagan, president of St. Stephen's Congregation at the time.

The Reverend JJ Bernal, who took over for Collins in October, told KGUN in December that he was helping the congregation forge ahead by converting the parish hall into a sanctuary and creating future plans for the church. The congregation moved into the hall earlier in the month for their Sunday services — providing a sense of "being at home."

“I saw and I feel the connection with people like resting and saying, 'Ah, after all this time, I’m home. After these moments, after these months, I’m here.'" Bernal said.

New beginnings

First Presbyterian began bracing the original walls of the church in December. Months later and they still have a long way to go.

The next step will be removing the damage and wood frame from the building.

"It is amazing to see, 120 years later, that it's still up and standing after the fire," project superintendent Mike Royder said.


That process begins next week.

Pastor Christiansen said she is looking forward to what's next.

“The spirit is indestructible," she told KGUN. "And because we know we have a future, and we don’t know exactly what it is, but we have complete confidence because we are being led.”

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