An early morning fire Monday destroyed the Mesa Arizona Lehi Stake building of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1430 N. Grand St.
No cause is known. A joint investigation by local and federal agencies is expected to start by the weekend.
The building serves three church wards, or congregations: the Mesa Vista, Hillside and Lehi 2nd wards.
“We left the building about 9 p.m. Sunday evening,” said Craig Ahlstrom, stake president.
“We had a meeting with about 350 of our young people and served ice cream bars as they left the building.”
The church building next to Mesa Cemetery was erected in 1980. “This is one of our larger buildings,” Ahlstrom said. “There are about 3,200 members of our stake who use this building at different times throughout the week.”
“It is sad. Especially for the people who live in this area, this is the only church they have ever known,” he said. “They raised their families here, the funerals of their parents were here. There is tremendous sadness and a lot of sentiment here in this building.”
Mesa and Tempe fire units, along with a Gilbert battalion chief, responded to the first-alarm fire about 1:40 a.m., said Capt. Ransom Rush, a commander on the scene.
“When we arrived, there were 50- or 60-foot flames shooting out of the roof on the west side of the church,” Rush said.
Several ladder trucks worked to repress the flames, but only exterior walls remained.
The stake president said when he arrived about 2 a.m., “the roof was partially engulfed on the west end within 30 minutes and pretty much the building was gone.”
The church’s steeple had lowered to the ground, but was pointing skyward.
“The church steeple tilted about 45 degrees and then dropped down, and whether it was the heat or whatever, it righted itself straight back up in almost perfect position,” Ahlstrom said.
“That is kind of symbolic that we are going to be back and we are going to be fine and we’ll be OK with it.”
On Monday, members of the Mormon community lined the sidewalk outside the church, taking pictures and talking about memories. One 9-year-old boy was kneeling outside the church. “I was praying,” said Andrew Shupe, “to help us know if someone did it.”
Mesa Fire Deputy Chief Mike Dunn said vandals broke into the church about a month ago.
“They got into some of the offices and just made a mess of things, looking for cash or something and there’s no cash kept in these buildings,” said Bishop Jim Stock.
Until the building is rebuilt, church members said 3,200 members will have to use another building. “There were three congregations that met at this church,” said Ted Sowards, who helps with the youth choir. “they’ll be divided up and be sent to other church buildings.”
Authorities said federal investigators, including the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents, would likely begin the formal investigation on Saturday. The investigation is partly delayed because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Reporter Nicole Beyer contributed to this report.