RAYMOND – A fire that severely damaged a historic church this week was set intentionally, state investigators said Wednesday.

The fire at the Raymond Hill Baptist Church was reported about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday by several people driving by on Raymond Hill Road, investigators said.

Firefighters from seven departments put out the fire in less than an hour, saving the white clapboard church from destruction. Still, the 177-year-old building suffered more than $200,000 in damage, officials at the scene estimated Wednesday.

The fire heavily damaged a back corner of the church, destroying an old electric organ and covering the arched ceiling with a gray tinge. Investigators would not say how the fire was set.

The building is insured, and church members said Wednesday they expect it to be repaired.

Investigators from the state Fire Marshal’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which investigates arsons, worked late into the night Tuesday and all Wednesday morning before announcing about noon that the fire was arson.

“Now the criminal investigation begins to find out who did it,” said Daniel Young, a senior investigator with the Fire Marshal’s Office.

Investigators were stopping cars passing by the church Wednesday evening to ask whether anyone had seen anything suspicious in the area the night before, said Bruce Tupper, Raymond’s assistant fire chief.

News of the fire spread quickly through the Raymond Hill neighborhood, where many residents have ties to the church, said Deb Baker, a church member who lives less than a half-mile away.

“For a while, there were more spectators than firefighters,” Tupper said, referring to about 40 people who gathered at the scene Tuesday. “People came out of nowhere, just crying,” said Baker, who was married in the church in 1978.

Others visited the church Wednesday to see how badly it had been damaged. “So many people have loved this old church,” said Florence Whittemore, Baker’s mother.

The church holds just four services annually, all of them in July, and is also used for weddings and other events. The last service of the year is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday. Members planned to gather outside afterward for a picnic lunch, Whittemore said. Now, the sermon also will be delivered on the church lawn.

Whittemore, 77, grew up in Raymond and attended the church as a child. She now travels from her home in Yarmouth every summer for the services.

“For me, it’s a house of prayer, a place of refuge. It’s history,” she said.

The Fire Marshal’s Office asked anyone with information about the fire to call its arson hot line at (888) 870-6162.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

[email protected]