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Arson suspected in LDS meetinghouse fire in Arizona

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 3:05 p.m. MDT

http://www.azfamily.com

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TOLLESON, ARIZ. — A 50-year-old meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this Arizona community some 13 miles west of Phoenix was destroyed by fire early Friday morning.

Investigators are looking into the cause of the fire, which firefighters on the scene called "suspicious," according to several news reports. No injuries were reported in the blaze.

A neighbor reported smoke coming from the church at 2:15 a.m. Firefighters from five different municipalities worked on controlling the blaze, but the building is, according to one official, "a total loss."

"This is a tragedy, a great loss to members of the church in Tolleson," said President Ronald Waldron, president of the church's Phoenix Arizona Maricopa West Stake (a stake is an ecclesiastical unit consisting of a number of local congregations, similar to a diocese in other Christian denominations).

"We have members of the church in Tolleson who have been worshipping in that building ever since it was built in the late 1950s," Waldron said. "This was back in the days when members of the church did most of the fundraising and much of the construction for new meetinghouses, so we have members here who remember working on the building with their own hands. This will be a great loss to them."

The building has been a prominent landmark in the community as well, Waldron said, with many community events and recreational activities taking place there through the years.

"I have already received calls from city officials and from school district administrators, expressing their concern and offering facilities and other assistance that might be needed," Waldron said. "We appreciate the concern and support."

Three local congregations were meeting in the Tolleson meetinghouse, which means that around 1,400 worshippers have now been displaced for however long it requires for a new building to be constructed on the site — a process that will probably take between 18 months and two years, according to Waldron.

The plan for this Sunday is for the 10 wards in the stake to be divided between the two other meetinghouses in the stake. All of the wards will hold Sacrament Meeting (the congregational worship service during which the sacramental communion is offered) only, excluding Sunday school classes and instructional meetings for children, youth and adults that are also part of the church's weekly three-hour routine of worship and instruction.

"During the next few days we'll figure out how we're going to deal with it long-term," said Waldron, noting that the heavy weekly usage of LDS meetinghouses for a variety of youth and adult activities would make schools and civic buildings "impractical." More likely, he said, the three wards will share time and space in the other meetinghouses in the stake and in neighboring stakes.

"It will be tight for a couple of years, but we'll be fine," he said. "People have a way of rising to meet challenges like this. I have every expectation that our members will do just that."

Meanwhile, he urged church members in Tolleson to not speculate and certainly not judge with regards to the possibility of arson in the fire.

"We just need to go forward," Waldron said. "We need to let those who have responsibility for the investigation take care of those things and do their job. Our job is to just go about doing good and not make judgment. And if it is determined that this was done intentionally, we need to forgive those involved and remember that people can change."

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