Ruby Malone had only a short drive to visit her mother’s home near Plainview Circle early Thursday morning, so she covered her hair curlers with a bright scarf and headed out. When she left her mother’s just after 8 a.m., she was talking on her cell phone to Cheryl Cartwright.

Pulling up to the four-way stop, Malone heard sirens and, looking toward the sound, saw smoke coming from a building up the street.

“I was talking to Minister Cartwright,” Malone said. “I said ‘Lord have mercy, Cheryl, your church is on fire.’ She dropped the phone and we lost the connection.”

Cartwright is assistant pastor at Peace Missionary Baptist Church, a white clapboard structure that was badly damaged in the fire. Abraham Moore is pastor at the church.

Malone, fighting tears at times as she watched the church burn, said her three grown daughters, Yulanda, Monica and Michelle, attend the church, which has a congregation of about 60.

No one was inside the building at the time of the fire.

An unseasonably cold wind blew the purple scarf that decorated the center of three wooden crosses posted only feet from the church’s entrance as neighbors and parishioners watched firefighters from Athens Fire Department battle the blaze. The crosses were erected and decorated only hours before, after Wednesday night Bible class, in preparation of Sunday’s Easter service, said Yulanda Malone, who is the church’s administrator.

More than three hours after firefighters arrived, the fire was extinguished, but an in-depth investigation in conjunction with the state Fire Marshal’s office will continue, said Assistant Fire Chief Danny Southard.

“We do not suspect at this time that it is arson,” he said Thursday afternoon. “But as a policy of the state Fire Marshal’s office, due to the history of church fires in the state of Alabama, they have to investigate and take samples from any church fire.”

The fire was reported at 8:14 a.m. and four units and 12 firefighters were on the scene within two minutes, Southard said.

“The fire started in or near the pastor’s office; there was heavy fire damage to the pastor’s office and financial office,” he said. “There was also extensive heat damage and moderate fire damage in the sanctuary.”

Members of the church congregation had spent hours working to renovate the sanctuary after the church was purchased in 2003 from St. Mark Primitive Baptist Church.

“We’ve put in a lot of work. A lot of work,” Yulanda said.

No one turned on the heat in building during Bible class the night before, she said. The weather had not yet turned so cold.

She said the area where the flames appeared was just above the kitchen.

The brick Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, a separate congregation that sits only a few feet to the right of Peace M.B. Church, was unharmed in the fire.

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