RANDOLPH — Almost 80 years ago, the congregation of St. Paul moved to a new site in Randolph following a church fire in Coolidge. On the afternoon of Jan. 7, St. Paul Church of God in Christ suffered the same fate of its predecessor.
Both Regional and Coolidge Fire Departments rushed to the scene after shocked onlookers driving along State Route 87 called 911. Although the building was unoccupied at the time and there were no casualties, over 50% of the structure was destroyed.
Current and former St. Paul churchgoers expressed sadness at losing what was once a vital community center going back decades.
“When I went down to look at it, it broke my heart,” said Bishop Nathaniel White, 73, whose father, the Rev. E.D. White Sr., was the pastor when the St. Paul congregation moved to Randolph. “It hurt me so bad to see it. I grew up in that church.”
Local resident Gussie Taylor, 76, described St. Paul as her “spiritual birthplace.” Taylor began attending church as a young girl in the early 1950s. The senior White was pastor at that time and started what has become a multigenerational church family: His brother, Nicholas White, took over as pastor of St. Paul in the 1960s, and his nephew, Joel White, is the senior pastor at New Life Christian Center in Coolidge.
Randolph at that time was still a segregated community distinct from Coolidge. The town had started in 1925 as a place for African-American cotton pickers to settle. Several decades later, area residents were still poor and there was not much running water or electricity.
“We swam in the canals,” White said. “We made our own bicycles, wagons and toys. It was a tough time, but it was an enjoyable time.”
St. Paul’s current pastor, 72-year-old Ray Peace, said people had a lot of care and love for each other and for the church.
“The church was really a place to go and bring people together,” Peace said. “At that time, people worked hard in the fields and they just needed something to lift them up and when they came to St. Paul’s, they got it.”
Although it’s not certain when the church congregation moved to Randolph, both Pastor Peace and Bishop White believed it to have been constructed around the early 1940s.
Taylor, whose father was a deacon of the church at that time, says a lot of children in Randolph “got saved” at St. Paul, describing lively sermons and evangelist revivals, but also an after-school program that saw them at the church into the late hours of the evening.
“It was referred to as the ‘Holy Ghost Headquarters,’” Taylor said. “People came in from everywhere to attend that church.”
Bishop White, who is now a pastor in San Bernardino, California, said his father’s church was known “all over the state of Arizona” and that people would come from around the region to St. Paul.
“My father was very gifted,” White said. “He could preach, he could play piano, drums, he was just a magnificent man.”
Taylor said that the early church leaders were part of a Pentecostal movement. “People allowed the spirit to really come in and take control,” Taylor said. Those who fell on the floor from being overtaken were called “holy rollers,” and children were encouraged to participate.
“Every Wednesday night was youth night and we did it just like the adults,” Taylor said.
The heightened sense of spirituality within the church could occasionally be terrifying, as when then-6-year-old White found himself locked inside on a Sunday night under a full moon.
“They were having funerals in there, and people talked about spooks and ghosts and all the stuff,” White said. “I saw the family car pull up and oh man, I was in heaven. I never went to sleep in that church anymore, though.”
The Taylors and the Whites were very close and White said that when they were kids they would stay at each other’s houses and pick cotton together.
White, who graduated from Coolidge High School in 1965, said as a teenager people would call him “Ray Charles” and he’d perform in school as part of a group with Taylor and several other girls White said were the “Ray-lettes."
“I never wanted to be a preacher,” White said, “I wanted to be an entertainer.” Nevertheless, White says that after performing in the church, all but one of his seven brothers (including himself) became preachers.
“I tell you, there was some talent that came out of that church,” Taylor said.
One of the talented musicians who participated in the services was Pastor Peace. Peace, who is also a cousin of the Whites, was originally from Eloy.
When they moved to Randolph in 1963, Peace’s grandmother told him he’d have to attend St. Paul if he wanted to go see the movies at the San Carlos Theater in town.
Despite attending church regularly, it wasn’t until Peace grew up and moved with his wife to Phoenix that he realized how much St. Paul meant to him.
“It was a part of me without me realizing,” Peace said. “It’s amazing how you can be around something so long, spend many hours in the presence of some group, before you finally realize it was just something inside of you: I want to go to church.”
Taylor says that the congregation usually had 50 to 60 people at services, with over 150 for major events. According to Taylor, the services at St. Paul got so lively and spiritual that people would come from Randolph’s Baptist church after their own services were completed.
One of the most vivid memories Taylor has of this time was of a near-death incident from one of the parishioners in the late 1950s. According to Taylor, just as the pastor finished preaching and was getting ready to dismiss, one of the church mothers “just kind of went out” and was thought to have passed away.
“The pastor said, ‘OK, everybody that don’t believe, leave and we going to pray,’” Taylor said. “They called her husband and he came, and even after they called an ambulance they were still praying for her, and they prayed her back to life at St. Paul.”
Despite different beliefs between the Baptist church in Randolph and St. Paul, White credits his father with bringing the two congregations together.
“I miss those days,” White said. “I miss those days of fellowship, love and harmony. It was just all there.”
Peace has been pastor for a little over 20 years; he is the sixth pastor at St. Paul, after Nicholas White. Peace had come back to the area in the 1970s and eventually took over once White had become too ill to continue his role as superintendent of several area churches.
“Some assistants to the bishop came to give him some help at this particular time because of his condition,” Peace said, “and then they asked him who do you want to ‘help’ you? And he started crying, and then he pointed at me and said: I want Brother Peace.”
By that time, Peace said that many of the older families had moved on and the church “was no longer like what it was.” Peace also said the younger generations weren’t “bonafide” or religious to the extent of his and Taylor’s generation.
“When a pastor takes over, some people won’t want to stay,” Peace said. “But with a small group of people, some began to come in and so we were able to keep the church going.”
Peace, who became superintendent for the New Antioch District several years ago, said that the church had not been holding many services since the start of the pandemic, due to its small size.
According to Regional Fire and Rescue Chief Steven Kerber, the fire was started by several children in the area who were playing with a lighter, which caused a fire among trash cans close enough to the church’s northwest corner to set the building ablaze. Kerber said his crew believed the fire rolled up into the edge of the eave and into the church’s attic.
The newer north wing sustained heat and smoke damage, but the original structure was completely ruined. In addition, Peace said many of the items that had been with the church for decades, such as a 60-year-old piano and a framed picture of all the prior pastors, were lost to the fire.
Taylor also recalls “child of the month” plaques in the office for former Sunday school standouts, of which there was one for her.
“I’m devastated,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t even cross the street or get close to it. I sent a text to all my sisters and the response I got from them was, ‘Wow. How did that happen?’ Everybody was in disbelief.”
Peace acknowledged that the building did not have insurance, but that the church, and local organizations, would be soliciting donations from the community in the coming months.
Those looking to inquire about donations and the status of the church can send a letter to the church’s address: St. Paul Church, P.O. Box 634, Coolidge, AZ 85128, or call 520-560-6837.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Peace, “but a beautiful setting. A beautiful church, and we certainly have benefited in any other arena you can talk about.”