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PHOTOS: Damage inside historic First Baptist Church Montgomery that pastor says was ‘attacked by arsonist’

The pastor says 4 fires were deliberately set inside the century-old church
An investigation is underway after someone attempted to set fire to a historic Montgomery church.
An investigation is underway after someone attempted to set fire to a historic Montgomery church.((Source: WSFA 12 News))
Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 9:39 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 30, 2021 at 6:22 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The search is underway for the person responsible for trying to burn down a historic, century-old church in the heart of downtown Montgomery. Four separate fires broke out at First Baptist Church of Montgomery, located on South Perry Street, around 2 a.m. Thursday.

Lead Pastor Mark L. Bethea said someone entered the church during the overnight hours and set blazes inside the main sanctuary, in the historic Stakely Sanctuary and in some of the church’s office spaces.

Bethea said the fires had varying degrees of success. The reception office was destroyed.

At the foot of the cross in the sanctuary, the arsonist started a gasoline trail, making a winding walk up the center aisle. There were burn spots on the carpet of both sanctuaries and the flames destroyed some of the pews in the main sanctuary.

“It could have been much worse,” Bethea said, crediting the installation of flame-retardant carpets for helping slow the fires’ spread.

Looking down from the sanctuary balcony, the presence of smoke damage near the speakers is evident. Smoke and soot damage can be found throughout the church that thousands of members, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, worship in weekly.

“I’m deeply saddened to hear of this hateful act upon my church,” Ivey said in a statement. “I’m grateful to Pastor Mark’s leadership and response to such a hurtful moment in our community.”

The church shared the news Thursday morning with a social media post that included a picture of the sanctuary still blanketed in a smoky haze.

Dear friends, Overnight our church was attacked by an arsonist who attempted to set fire to several areas of our church...

Posted by First Baptist Church Montgomery on Thursday, September 30, 2021

“By God’s grace none of them got out of control and thank goodness our wonderful police department and firefighters came in quickly took care of everything and the damage,” Bethea said. “In most places it’s very minimal.”

Bethea said it was unclear how the arsonist got into the building, saying that was still under investigation. Montgomery Fire Rescue has not released any statements on the investigation, as of late Thursday afternoon. That may come on Friday.

DAMAGE PHOTO SLIDESHOW

Powerful blowers are doing their jobs to rid the church of smoke. There’s no word on the cost of the damage or clean up, nor is it clear how long it’ll take to make repairs. For now, though, the faith remains strong and unbreakable.

And Bethea, though tired but not defeated, is taking a charitable perspective on the early morning intrusion. Asked what he would say to the person who did this, he responded, “By God’s grace all of us are sinners and have fallen short of God’s standards and Glory. So as a church we extend God’s love and grace to all people.”

Services Sunday will remain as scheduled, Bethea added. The church is still planning to partake in the Lord’s Supper as a church and celebrate “the Lord’s goodness” despite life’s speed bumps.

According to its website, the church was constituted in November 1829 with just four charter members. In the 191 years since the church’s founding, it has called a few locations home. The current location has been in use since 1916.

Copyright 2021 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.