Only days before Christmas, the congregation of Antioch Baptist Church, a small, rural, Ralls County church, saw its worship home being damaged by clouds of smoke Tuesday afternoon.

Only days before Christmas, the congregation of Antioch Baptist Church, a small, rural, Ralls County church, saw its worship home being damaged by clouds of smoke Tuesday afternoon. By late afternoon, the church building was all but destroyed by fire.

Church members, many with tears in their eyes, watched as fire consumed the building, which had been in existence since the 1940s. The church's organization, however, dates back to before the Civil War.

The church, located on Route T, had heavy smoke coming from its rear when crews responded to the structure in the 3 p.m. hour. At 4 p.m., smoke was also coming from the steeple and the attic area. But by 5 p.m., most of the building had been lost to flames. The building's roof collapsed, as well as an exterior wall.

Firefighters from New London and the Hannibal Rural departments were first on the scene. A ladder truck from the Hannibal Fire Department was later dispatched to the scene following a mutual aid request. Firefighters from that department deployed an aerial attack on the fire.

Also on scene was the Ralls County Sheriff's Department and a Marion County Ambulance crew.

It is believed the fire started sometime between 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. after the pastor left the building.

Pastor Jack Emmite reported everything was normal when he departed the building at approximately 2 p.m. He collected mail at the church and locked up as he had for the past 25 years.

"It was just a couple of hours later that I got the call that it was on fire," Emmite said. Emmite was called around 3:30 p.m.

Emmite said that he was advised by fire personnel that they found a door unlocked when they arrived.

"They [fire crews] said the door was unlocked, but I don't understand that unless someone came in after me," he said.

Emmite promised his congregation that they will have a site in which to worship together on Christmas Sunday. Decisions on where will be made in the coming days, Emmite said.

Few things were salvaged from the building. A table, wheelchair and some literature are some of the lone things to survive the fire. Although its not believed anyone was inside the structure when it was engulfed in flames, that was not confirmed as of the Courier-Post print deadline.

Fighting the fire became even more difficult due to the scope of the blaze. With few fire hydrants around, tankers had to go back and forth a couple miles to get water from Hannibal.