Mary Thomas Espree said she had a premonition that her church would burn to the ground before it did.

Two other historically black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish had just burned only days apart. That's why when her niece called to tell her on Thursday to say Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was on fire, a part of Espree wasn't surprised.

"I didn't know it would be so soon, but I knew it would happen," Espree said. "The Lord put it in my spirit that it would happen at Mount Pleasant too."

Espree was one of about 80 displaced church members who attended a service Sunday morning at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas.

At 70 years old, Espree had never attended another church before. She was christened, baptized and married at Mount Pleasant.


Mary Thomas Espree, a member of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church which was burned in a suspected arson, looks down sadly during Sunday services at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas April 7, 2019.

Espree wore a white dress to Sunday's service at Morning Star. She and others in the congregation at Mount Pleasant traditionally wear white on the first Sunday of every month to represent "our service to the Lord."

The place where she worshiped Sunday was different, and many of the people inside of it were too. Aside from churchgoers, there were fire officials and members of the media in attendance. 

But some things were familiar. Mount Pleasant and Morning Star actually share the same pastor.

"The devil don't realize what he's doing," the Rev. Gerald Toussaint said during Sunday's service. "But I'm going to tell him without this tragedy, Reverend Gerald would have never had the chance to preach to the nation."

After string of St. Landry church fires, pastors pray, plan ways to protect churches

With those words, the congregation of about 180 exploded into applause and exclamations of praise.

The pews of Morning Star were about twice as full as the typical Sunday, according to Toussaint. The pastor asked the same question of his congregation several times throughout the service: "What do you do when you don't know what to do?"

He answered that question with suggestions to the congregation such as to pray, to stand still, to quit running in search of answers and to look up.

"The fire didn't destroy the church. It destroyed the building," Toussaint said. "We ain't mad. There's going to be another building."


A member of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, which was burned in a suspected arson, holds a bible from the church during Sunday services at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas April 7, 2019.

After the hour-and-a-half service, Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning addressed those from Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.

"There's a reason why I'm standing before you all," Browning said. "Unfortunately, the obvious reason is because there's been a horrendous crime placed on this church and its people, but I think it's bigger than that. You see, when this is over with, we've now formed a bond, and we've formed a purpose. And that higher purpose is to spread the good news of what our creator did to us and what he has in store for us."

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Nearly 200 people are working on the fire investigation, Browning said, including "literally all of the state fire marshal's resources" and the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Browning promised the congregation their pastor would hear news on the case before the public or the media.

"Yes, these fires are suspicious. Yes, crimes were occurred," Browning said. "People say, 'Well, what happened?' We can't say what happened yet. When people say 'There's been three fires, are they connected?' Obviously they're connected. 'Well, tell me how they're connected.' We can't say that publicly. But at the point that we can tell the pastors, we're going to tell them first."

Instead of calling police or a tips hotline, Browning urged people to share any information about the crimes with their pastors to pass along to law enforcement.


Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning addresses the congregation during Sunday services at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas April 7, 2019.

Thursday's early morning fire at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church is the most recent in a string of fires at historically black churches in St. Landry Parish. Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas was destroyed April 2, and St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre burned to the ground March 26.

All three historically black Baptist churches were well over 100 years old and located along rural highways in St. Landry Parish. The fires all happened overnight.

Officials and church leaders have been hesitant to say if race is thought to be a motivator in the case.

"We don't know who did this, and we don't know what color they are," said Toussaint. "So don't let people fill you with that because that's a tactic too."

'You're attacking God's home': Officials address suspicious fires at historically black St. Landry churches

Browning said if the person or people responsible for the church fires had been at the Sunday service at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, they would have been so moved that they would have turned themselves in and asked for forgiveness.

"Let's pray for the people responsible and all the churches that have surrounded and embraced you all," Browning said. "We'll get that person a whole lot better help than the justice system will ever get them because we're going to help them find God, and we're going to use that to stop this cancer that's going on that's executed through crime."

Follow Megan Wyatt on Twitter, @MeganWyattACA.