PRAIRIE GROVE, AR – The Illinois Baptist Church was built in 1912. It was once used as a community gathering place and even a school.
“This church has been out there in that community for a long time,” says Dennis Ledbetter, Washington County Fire Marshal. “They have founding members that are just family after family that went to church there.”
For many families in Prairie Grove this is more than just a church, it’s a spiritual home, and that’s what makes what happened here even more painful.
“People were so attached to it, it was pretty emotional,” says Lynville Eaton, Illinois Baptist church pastor.
On April 20, 2012 around 1 a.m., someone reported a fire at the church. Firefighters couldn’t even go inside the building because it was too dangerous.
“We conducted an investigation and the investigation put the origin of the fire on the outside of the building,” Ledbetter said.
The fire destroyed the oldest part of the church that had turned 100 that year. The flames burned the wood and brick but something else sparked suspicions about who could have committed this crime. Whoever set the fire spray painted pentagrams on the building. The symbol is often used in cults, but police say they don’t think this is the work of an organized group.
“A cult member, they take pride in their work. When they make a symbol they make it right,” Ledbetter says. These were not truly the real symbols. (Also) It was done on the outside. Your cults and stuff they go inside a church.”
All of the original church building was destroyed in the fire, but the congregation rebuilt.
“It was a unique old building but it’s gone and we have this and we praise the Lord for that,” Pastor Eaton says.
Although the building may be new and the congregation looking to the future, it’s this old case from the past that still haunts investigators.
“It may be a nicer building, but it’s not their original building that you know, Grandma and Grandpa came to,” Ledbetter adds. “One of the things we really want to know is just why? Why our church, why this?”
Pastor Eaton says the congregation is stronger after the crime, and that he forgives whoever set the fire, but he also says he feels badly for them because they have to carry the burden of what they’ve done.
“I wouldn’t hold a grudge against them for it,” he says. “It was something they did and none of us are perfect. They have to live with what they did and that hurts too – that somebody knows, somebody knows.”
Anyone with information about the crime is urged to call the Washington County Fire Marshal at (479) 444-5740.