‘Suspicious’ fire leaves historic Black church in ruins in Clay County

No injuries reported; Members vow to rebuild from the rubble

St. Simon Baptist Church was set to re-open in May after being under construction since the beginning of the pandemic. After a fire last night, the church is left in ruins.

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – The congregation of a historic Black church in Orange Park was left to sift through the rubble Friday morning after a fire overnight left the church’s sanctuary in ruins.

Investigators distributed posters Friday indicating arson was suspected in the fire at St. Simon Baptist Church on Miller Street, but later clarified saying the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined but that arson “hasn’t been ruled out” and that the blaze is considered “suspicious.” The flier offers a reward up to $5,000 for information on the person responsible.

Local, state and federal investigators, including ATF agents, were at the scene all day digging through the devastation in what remained of the 3,200 square foot building.

“We didn’t have or know of anyone who would want to hurt or harm the church,” said John Davis, the church custodian, whose been a member for six years. “We call this holy ground because of the fact that we can do so much with so little.”

No one was injured and members vowed they will rebuild.

“We’re going to grow back. We just ... you have to keep the faith, that’s all,” Davis said. “God is in control still.”

When crews with the Orange Park Fire Department arrived a little after 11 p.m. Thursday, they could see flames coming from the church building.

Clay Fire Rescue shared photos of the scene, showing firefighters battling the fire.

The church, which was built in 1965, was under renovation and had been set to reopen in June. Its doors had been closed since the pandemic started but services were being held outdoors.

The church had been building a fellowship hall.

Moyenda Ambakisye, the pastor’s assistant, said it’s overwhelming to see the aftermath, which included collapsed walls, smoldering wood and piles of rubble.

The overnight fire happening before Holy Week -- a special time of remembrance and celebration for Christians -- makes it even more tragic for the entire church community.

“It’s always going to be a loss for the entire community. I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a church leaves a community, a part of the community leaves. It really can’t be replaced. We can move forward but that which is done is done and we can’t go back and undo it,” Ambakisye said. “I was married here. My son was married here. I baptized all my grandchildren. My salvation was made here. So we’re safe here. There’s a lot of investment: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, you name it.”

With Easter a little over a week away, church members are considering putting up a tent and having an outdoor service like they’ve been doing throughout the pandemic, but ultimately they are worried about the structure of the building being unsafe.

Ambakisye said about 150 members call the church home, and he’s been a member for 20 years.

“What’s next? Where do we go from here? How do we rebuild?” Ambakisye said. “We will. Those are just a few of my questions that I have. (It’s) a test of faith.”

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St. Simon Baptist Church was left in ruins by a fire

Church administrator Lester Perry called St. Simon Baptist the “smallest largest church in the community.”

Perry, the longest-standing deacon who was ordained at the church in 2001 questioned how the fire started in the first place since the building had been stripped out for its total makeover.

“Just don’t understand. How can a church burn when there’s nothing in there? It’s just studs,” Perry said. “It’s heartbreaking because of the fact we’ve come so far. We purchased everything around it -- the land, the church building, and we knew it would come a time where we could actually do an expansion or build.”

Perry said despite being faced with the setback, they will rebuild.

The fire marshal is continuing to investigate.

A church member said the church’s leader is still Rev. William Henry Randall, who is well known in local Christian and political circles after running against former Congresswoman Corrine Brown in 1998 and working to revitalize the area.

Randall was arrested in 2018 and charged with sexual battery on a child. He pleaded guilty earlier this month. According to court records, he has a sentencing hearing April 14.

Anyone with information on the fire is asked to call the Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention at 877-662-7766 or 877-NO ARSON or visit FACAP.ORG.

About the Authors:

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.