A small fire damaged the historic, wood-paneled walls of the century-old Portland New Church in Portland, Maine, early Sunday morning, and a church official believes the blaze was started deliberately and that vandals targeted a Black Lives Matter sign that adorned the building’s wall.
“This humble church has served as a meeting space for many people in Deering Center since 1910,” the church wrote on Facebook. “We are saddened and angered by this hateful act.”
The church’s pastor, Lorraine Kardash, told the Globe that flames broke out on the building’s front porch at around 1:30 a.m. Sunday and damaged the front wall.
A group of neighbors worked to control the blaze until firefighters arrived, Kardish said.
“Neighbors acted fast and doused the fire before major structural damage occurred,” the Facebook post read.
Once on scene at the church, firefighters extinguished the flames in minutes, Portland fire Captain John Brennan said Monday night. The church was empty when the fire started and no injuries were reported, according to Brennan.
An image posted by the church on Facebook showed the building — a thin, mostly wooden structure with a towering gable roof — charred near the front door. Brennan said the church sustained relatively minor damage to the exterior of the building, but otherwise is structurally sound.
Brennan said neighbors who helped extinguish the flames were “absolutely instrumental” in minimizing damage to the church.
“In combination of calling 911, but also taking action on their own safely, it certainly kept a fire in an older building from potentially causing some significant damage,” he said. “They played a key role, as well as the quick response by the fire station.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation by the fire department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Brennan said. Though Kardash believes it was an act of arson, Brennan would not comment on any potential cause.
Kardash said a Black Lives Matter sign the church had on display was found under a group of nearby bushes when the flames were extinguished.
“Somebody definitely started it,” she said.
Regardless, Kardash said the sign would be mounted again in the coming days.
”We’re going to put the sign back up,” she said.
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. Andrew Brinker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker. Katie Redefer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.