By Fr. James E. Shea, C.Ss.R.
Dear Parishioners and Friends:
“THE CHURCH IS ON FIRE”
Early Thanksgiving morning, Father Mick Fleming raced through the rectory pounding on doors and desperately shouting: “The church is on fire, the church is on fire.”
I leapt out of bed, quickly got dressed and rushed outside. Fire trucks and emergency vehicles surrounded the church. Their bright lights lit the surrounding area. I arrived just after the fire fighters had extinguished the fire. As I stood next to the church I could see dense smoke filling the back sacristy and the nave of the church. When the smoke cleared, I entered the sacristy. There before me was the locked chalice cabinet. Only now, the door was smashed and the chalices were gone. Then I went upstairs to the second floor of the sacristy. There laid the twisted and charred remains of church decorations.
Then the questions came. How did the fire start? Who started it? Who called 911? What happened to the chalices? Did someone set the church on fire? Was it an electrical fire? On and on came the questions…with no answers.
We know that the fire started and was contained in the west end of the second floor of the sacristy. i will tell the story as I think things happened.
About 1:00 to 2:00 a.m. Thanksgiving morning one or two people, maybe more, entered the church. I will refer to them as ‘vandals.’ We have no idea how the vandals entered. No doors or windows showed any signs of forced entry. The doors of the church were all locked. I walked through the church around 6:00 p.m. the night before, locking the doors behind me. Perhaps the vandals had a key. It could be that I failed to secure a door. Perhaps the vandals were hiding in the church.
The vandals did not turn the lights on in the church. Instead they found the stubs of burn out candles. These stubs were in a box on the bottom shelf of the candle cabinet.We saved them for recycling. They took the candle stubs, lit them and placed them around the sacristy, upstairs and down. It seems that they also roamed around the church. We found spilt wax here and there. One of the seminarians as well as a neighbor reported the ringing of church bells at 2:00 a.m. The church bell switch is close to the light switch. Perhaps they hit the wrong switch.
In front of the main altar we had placed large baskets to collect Thanksiving food for the poor. The vandals took two baskets, went into the sacristy, smashed open the door of the chalice cabinet and raked all the sacred vessels into the baskets. They dumped the contents of all the drawers into the baskets. They carried the overloaded baskets and placed them on the main altar.
The tabernacle key was locked in the chalice cabinet. They took the key, opened the tabernacle, took the luna and ciborium filled with consecrated hosts and placed them in the basket on the altar. As they were loading the baskets, one of the candles upstairs probably melted down, fell over and started burning the decorations. Perhaps the vandals did not realize the fire was burning. And if they did, they probably fled leaving the two baskets behind.
A young couple, Lee and Charlene, live directly across the street. Charlene is five months pregnant. Around 2:15 a.m., she had a craving for a cinnamon roll. She and her husband stepped out of their house heading to Whataburger. Charlene looked up, saw flames in the sacristy window. She told her husband to call 911. Moments later the emergency sirens pierced the silence of the night. If the vandals did not flee when they saw the fire, they certainly fled when they heard the sirens. They left behind the baskets on the altar. The vandals might have taken a few items. An elaborate ciborium and a chalice is missing. The tabernacle key is also missing. There might be other items missing as well.
Brother Mark, our seminarian, woke up to the sound of the sirens, saw the emergency vehicles in front of the church, had the presence of mind to grab a church key and open the church for the fire fighters. The police took fingerprints – still under investigation. The arson officer could find no evidence of intentionally starting the fire. The origin of the fire was determined to be the careless use of lighten candles.
A thick plaster wall separates the upper room from the sanctuary of the church. The fire lapped against the heavy plaster but did not penetrate the wall. Therefore, the sanctuary and nave suffered no physical damage, only smoke damage. The second floor of the sacristy had to be gutted. The cleaning crew had to wash down the walls of the church and wipe every surface in the sanctuary and nave.
We are most grateful for Charlene and Lee calling 911, for the quick response of the fire fighters; and for Brother Mark who opened the church door. St. Gerard is the patron of women bearing a child. Perhaps St. Gerard was at work creating a taste for a cinnamon roll, waking people at the proper time, grabbing a church key and containing the fire in the upper room.
We give praise and thanks to God.
Fr. Jim Shea, C.Ss.R.