Historic church destroyed by fire

Published 10:17 pm Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Bethlehem Baptist Church, the oldest African-American church in Bogalusa, burned to the ground early Sunday.

A passing witness, John Robertson, said he saw smoke coming out of the back end of the church, which included the kitchen, and knocked on the door of nearby resident William Foster Jr. to ask him to call the fire department.

Foster said that by the time he made the call and got back outside, the church, located just off Sullivan Drive on East Seventh Street, was engulfed in flames. It was approximately 4 a.m.

“It couldn’t be saved,” he said.

The fire department reportedly got to the scene within two or three minutes and managed to keep the fire from spreading to the church gymnasium, which is just next to the church building.

Pastor Christopher Matthews said the congregation numbers approximately 250 people.

He, church deacons and others arrived at the scene while the building was still ablaze and firefighters were working to contain and knock down the flames.

By 6 a.m. dozens of church members and neighbors were on-site as the firemen addressed hot spots in a smoking church where all that remained was a brick base and skeletal bits of roof support.

The state fire marshal’s office was also already at the scene, talking to witnesses and beginning its investigation.

On Tuesday morning, the investigation continued.

“It’s still classified as an undetermined cause,” said Lance Lamarca of the fire marshal’s office. “There is no indication of foul play at this time, but it’s still early in the investigation.”

The fire scene investigation was not able to rule out an electrical problem as the cause, he said.

Matthews said a funeral had taken place at the church on Saturday, but there were no candles burning that might have started a fire.

He vowed the church would arise from the ashes.

“I know we’re going to rebuild,” he said.

In the meantime, the church will hold services at Mt. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on East Fourth Street.

City Councilman Michael O’Ree, a deacon at Bethlehem Baptist, said Sunday School will take place at 10 a.m. and worship services will begin at 11 a.m. in the nearby church.

The Bethlehem Baptist Christmas Program will also take place at Mt. Bethel at 11 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 23.

The historic church moved from the old Mill Quarters to the now burned building in 1958, Matthews said.