‘We’re not quitting’: Arson suspected in fire at historic church in southeast Houston

HOUSTON – The congregation of First Baptist Church of Genoa in southeast Houston are determined to rebuild after a fire destroyed the historic building.

“This church has been so much to this community,” Deacon Steve Hartman said. “It’s disheartening but at the same time it’s just property.”

He said the church was founded in 1895 and the main sanctuary was built in 1903.

The fire charred portions of the sanctuary, but it destroyed the fellowship hall, which was built in the mid ‘40s.

“Flames just came out of the vents,” said witness Flaco Hellion. “The [electrical] box started sparking. Next thing you know the whole building was on fire.”

Houston Fire Department’s spokesperson said crews arrived on scene at 9:22 a.m. Sunday. But Hellion and other witnesses said they smelled smoked around 8:15 a.m. but weren’t aware of the fire until someone driving by flagged them down.

Hellion was working and removing trees the next block over on Freecroft Street when the fire apparently broke out.

The Houston Fire Department’s arson bureau is investigating how the fire started and couldn’t release any further information.

However, Hartman said that arson investigators told him they believe the fire was set intentionally. He said he was told the arson dog detected accelerants.

Hartman reflected on the church’s history.

“kind of imagine people throughout the years, dressed in whole different clothing’s of the periods,” he said as he choked up. “Just kind of imagine them standing there saying, ‘Come in. Come meet God.’”

Hartman said the church doesn’t have insurance. Hartman said after Hurricane Ike in 2008, their insurance dropped them, “And the cheapest we could find was a million dollars in premiums a year.”

He said the premium wasn’t something the small congregation could afford.

Hartman and his wife set up a GoFundMe seeking to “clean up after the fire and eventually rebuild. We were able to save our historic sanctuary.”

“We’re not quitting we’re not going anywhere,” Hartman said.

Smoke could be seen billowing from the church miles away. (Flanco Hellion)
Damage inside First Baptist Church of Genoa. (Facebook, First Baptist Church of Genoa.)
Several Houston firefighters work to control Sunday fire at First Baptist Church of Genoa in southeast Houston. (Facebook, First Baptist Church of Genoa)

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