Saticoy's century-old white clapboard church, set in a vacant mustard field with the towering Topatopa Mountains as a backdrop, was so treasured for its simple beauty it was once featured in a "Kodak moment" commercial.
But on Wednesday, Sacred Heart Mission Church, also known as Ventura County Historical Landmark No. 102, was reduced to a pile of charred rubble, the victim of a suspicious fire.
"The damage was too great to determine an actual cause," said Battalion Chief Kevin Rennie of the Ventura Fire Department. "We don't think it was accidental, because there was no electrical power to the building ... but whether it was accidental or purposeful we can't say."
The fire was reported at 3:15 a.m. Wednesday and took firefighters about 15 minutes to extinguish, Rennie said..
The abandoned church, near the intersection of Wells and Darling roads, hadn't been used as a house of worship since 1968. But given the structure's picturesque setting -- majestically transformed in the spring with the bright yellow field contrasted against the snowcapped mountains --it remained a popular fixture in the community.
"I can't imagine why anyone would" destroy it, said Bill Downs, general partner of Rosewood Park Partnership, which owns the 12-acre church property. "I saw a lot of really sad people at the site yesterday. They just couldn't believe it wasn't there. It happened to me, too. I thought I was in the wrong place."
The developer is hoping to build a residential and commercial project on the site. But its future was unclear. Earlier plans called for incorporating the church into the proposed development, possibly as a museum.
"It's just a pile of charred lumber now," Downs said. "If there's any positive aspect to come out of this, it's that no one was hurt."
Historians disagree on the age of the church. Some suggest it was constructed in the 1890s, others say during the first decade of the 20th century.
The building started out as a general store and post office at Saticoy Avenue and Telephone Road. In 1915, it was relocated to Wells Road and converted into a mission named Sacred Heart by St. Sebastian's Catholic Church in Santa Paula.
Parishioners worshipped there for the next half a century until the congregation outgrew the facility and moved to a site on Henderson Road. In addition to the Kodak spot, the structure had been featured in a number of other commercials, music videos and feature films that included the Nicholas Cage movie "The Rock."
Kim Hocking, a staff member with the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board, said the structure stood out because of its location.
"Lots of landmarks are in places where you don't often see them, but this one is in the middle of an open field," Hocking said. "In the spring, nature graces it with lots of pretty flowers, so it's a very scenic location."
Bill Schneider, a member of Saticoy Historical Society, said the church building was once an important stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad line serving the area's farmers and walnut growers. He said two of his four adult children attended catechism classes at Sacred Heart
"It's too bad it's gone," he said. "But that's the way history is, it disappears."