FORD HEIGHTS (CBS) — A historic Ford Heights church with a congregation of 1,300 became a burned-out shell after flames gutted the building overnight.

Fire ravaged “Christ for Everyone Ministries” in Ford Heights Wednesday night. Ministers were able to get out of the church before it went up in flames.

CBS 2’s Suzanne Le Mignot reports that the church was billed as a beacon of light in the community, offering free meals to those in need and a variety of services. Church officials said the many programs offered at the church before the fire will continue in other locations until the church is rebuilt.

“It’s like watching your house burn down,” said congregant Lynn Jackson.

Emotions overwhelmed Jackson as she looked at what remained of her church of 25 years.

“My children were christened here. My husband was baptized here,” Jackson said as she explained the tremendous role the church has played in her life.

Detectives with the Cook County Sheriff’s office were working with the Illinois State Fire Marshalls office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine whether that gutted this church was arson or accidental.

Wednesday night, a fire started in a vacant house next door, then spread to the church.

The fire burned for about five hours before firefighters put it out. The blaze left only the church’s brick walls standing.

“The doors are always open. If you needed shelter, refuge, food, whatever you need,” Jackson said.

The church has been a fixture in Ford Heights for nearly 40 years, when it was founded by Deacon George Franklin. It has a free medical clinic, along with food and youth programs.

The church also has a partnership with The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired. Blind seniors came to the church every Thursday to learn independent living skills. The program was created in memory of the church’s founder, who was blind.

“They were learning how to cook, prepare meals for themselves,” said Chicago Lighthouse Senior Program Director Ingra Gardner. “We have wonderful friendships that have formed and evolved. We have two couples who are to marry, who met just from that group.”

In 1996, the congregation raised $1.2 million to build the church, replacing the much smaller house of worship that had been on the site.

“We have to pull together again, like we did back in ’96 and rebuild. It’s going to be bigger, stronger and better,” said Kevin Franklin, the brother of the church bishop.

The church programs will continue at different locations, until they can rebuild.

No one was hurt in the fire. The cause still isn’t known. Investigators were analyzing evidence and want to talk to anyone who might have seen anything before the fire started.

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