ORANGE PARK – One by one, cars and trucks slowly rolled through and around the potted dirt driveway, emerging from a wooded entrance to the strikingly somber scene of broken concrete and charred …
ORANGE PARK – One by one, cars and trucks slowly rolled through and around the potted dirt driveway, emerging from a wooded entrance to the strikingly somber scene of broken concrete and charred rafters.
What used to be the St. Simons Baptist Church still smelled of smoke. With the exception of a couple metal cabinets, there wasn’t anything remaining that was recognizable.
Curious and concerned residents joined congregation members in the parking lot Saturday afternoon, barely a day after fire ripped through the historic Black Church on Miller Street. By the time the Orange Park Fire Department and Clay County Fire and Rescue arrived shorting after 11 p.m. Thursday night, the 3,200-square-foot church already was reduced to rubble.
Investigators posted two fliers at the church with a promise to pay $5,000 for information. The fliers also stated arson was suspected. Investigators also will be looking into the construction project at the building.
“The State Fire Marshal is currently investigating the cause,” the Orange Park Fire Department said in a release. “The interior of the church had not been actively in use since the beginning of the pandemic. However, the structure was undergoing renovations to add a fellowship hall.”
The church, which was built in 1965, was “80% through” a massive expansion project, said church administrator Deacon Lester Perry said. In fact, contractors were on the property a day earlier setting the foundation for a new air conditioning system.
“We were moving 100% forward,” Perry said. “It was going to be beautiful. All of these big things were getting done. They were about to start the drywall and air conditioning. We were all out here on Wednesday. All of a sudden the fire breaks out and it’s gone.”
There were no injuries reported. Perry also said the church was fully insured.
“We will start from scratch,” he said. “We will rebuild.”
The only wood inside the church were the rafters and the choir stand, and yet every portion of the building was destroyed by the blaze. Unopened boxes of roofing shingles were reduced to charcoal along the front porch; insulation squares were stacked in blackened decay.
“There wasn’t anything in there [that was flammable],” Perry said. “How can the church be on fire? How in the world can a building burn like this?”
Perry said investigators asked church officials and parishioners if they “know anybody who had a problem with us?” Perry said he didn’t.
“We are part of this community,” he said. “When someone needs something, we reach out to them. This is the community we serve. I can’t imagine anyone who would do something like this.”
The community now will play an important role is rebuilding the church.
The group in the parking lot after the fire was proof flames can’t diminish the faith and resolve at the iconic church.
“This won’t stop us,” Perry said. “We will be back.”