ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (BP)–A fire that heavily damaged the historic downtown building of First Baptist Church in Albuquerque, N.M., Aug. 18 has been ruled an arson, according to the local fire department.
Reports indicate the fire caused an estimated $250,000 in damage after it was set in the parlor and spread upstairs to the library.
Firefighters responded to the blaze around 11 p.m. Wednesday and worked for two hours to contain the fire to the first three stories of the five-story building. More than 70 firefighters were involved in the effort, according to the Albuquerque Journal, which described the church as an iconic downtown landmark.
First Baptist Albuquerque’s 700-member congregation recently moved its Sunday services to a new building on the west side of town, but the church offices and other ministries remained at the downtown building.
Albuquerque Public Schools was close to purchasing the 61-year-old structure for use as a fine arts magnet school for kindergarten through 8th grade, and the school system’s chief operating officer said after the fire that the school system is still “very interested in the property.”
“We knew we could start a small magnet school here without much work,” Brad Winter of Albuquerque Public Schools told the Journal. “Depending on insurance issues, that could still be the case.”
The building was insured, church officials said, but the church was waiting for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is required to investigate any fire that damages a church, to complete its work. As of Friday, there were no suspects in the arson case.
In addition to the school system, the city of Albuquerque was interested in purchasing the First Baptist complex.
“The city has been looking at this property for several years, and I think that it would be the ideal location for an event center,” City Council president Ken Sanchez said.
Both Albuquerque Public Schools and the city council said the property is a gold mine, according to Albuquerque’s KOAT-TV. The school board recently approved $11.3 million to buy the church campus and had been waiting on a due diligence report to be sure inspections of the building were satisfactory.
Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, and Hayes Wicker, pastor of First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., are among the church’s former pastors.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.