A fire that damaged the exterior of a Haverhill church early Tuesday morning is being called suspicious, officials said.
The fire was fueled by an accelerant that was poured along the side of a section of the Riverside Church, causing about $70,000 in damage, said Haverhill Fire Chief Jack Parow.
“The fire is definitely suspicious,” he said, “and we’re doing our due diligence to talk to people.”
Flames did not spread inside the building, Parow said, and no one was injured.
“[The fire] actually began to creep into the building, but the Haverhill Fire Department arrived very quickly and extinguished it,” said Pastor Paul Soucy, who has led the congregation for two-and-a-half years. “The response was quick, so our outside damage was the worst and we had a lot of smoke damage inside.”
Beyond the physical damage to the building, Soucy said the fire was “heart wrenching” for some of the church’s older members who remember a blaze in 1970 that burnt Riverside Church to the ground. That fire, which destroyed the original church built in 1907, was also an act of arson.
“That building actually burnt to the ground with its parishioners watching helplessly,” Soucy said. “Some of those parishioners are still with us and they’re in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and now they have to relive this again.”
A potential perpetrator or motive for the fire is “a mystery” to the pastor and his congregation, he said.
“We try to help our community. We don’t try to attack anyone,” Soucy said. “Basically right now, our congregation is trying to wrack our brains together to think who would do something like this.”
The church has set up a fund for the cost of rebuilding.
“Many have been giving an outpouring of support, so we thank you ahead of time and God bless,” the church said on its voicemail message.
Soucy called the support from the Haverhill community “tremendous.”
The fire chief said the city is offering up to $5,000 for information that could lead to an arrest.
Haverhill fire, police, and State Police assigned to the state fire marshal’s office are investigating the incident.