UPDATED 11/04/10 11:11 a.m.

FORD HEIGHTS, Ill. (CBS) -A landmark church in south suburban Ford Heights is a shell of its former self, after it was destroyed in a suspicious fire.

Two nearby homes were also destroyed in the blaze Wednesday night.

As CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli reports, the fire was first reported just after 7:30 p.m. at a small house in the 1400 block of Woodlawn Avenue in Ford Heights.

Cook County sheriff’s officers and the two-man Ford Heights Volunteer Fire Department came to the scene, along with firefighters from South Chicago Heights.

The fire soon spread to an occupied house to the north, and on the south to Christ for Everyone Ministries at 1430 Woodlawn Ave. and two buildings adjacent to it.

Dozens of firefighters from eight different departments tried to save the church, but could not. It burned for more than five hours.

The home where the fire started, as well as nine homes on the next block were all evacuated, displacing families who are being assisted by the American Red Cross at the Ford Heights Village Hall, officials said.

Christ for Everyone was the largest church building in all of Ford Heights, and was home to more than 800 members. The church is clearly visible from US 30, half a block away, Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reported from the scene. US 30 is 14th Street in Ford Heights.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya Reports

But now, its sanctuary has been reduced to rubble and ashes.

“It’s pretty stunning to come in and see the church where we worship, is now, in….” LaTasha Amos said. She was at a loss for words to describe how it felt to see her church in ruins, but the tears on her face said it all.

“It’s just really hurtful right now,” she said. Amos has been a member of the church for 15 years.

Rickey Hughes is a deacon who has been part of the church family some 24 years, and he too was on the scene Thursday morning.

“It’s almost like a death,” he said. “It’s a great los; a great loss to many people,” he said. “Twenty-four years; it’s been part of my life. It’s very difficult. I feel helpless.”

Kevin Franklin grew up in one of the buildings adjacent to the church. His family founded and built the church up after they moved to the south suburbs from Cabrini-Green public housing development in the 1970s.

“It’s devastating to see everything actually go up in flames; something you worked so hard for, for all the years, and then something in a matter of hours that’s completely gone,” said Franklin, whose brother is pastor of the church.

The church is insured, and no decision has been made on whether to rebuild. But Hughes says the church is moving in that direction.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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