Fire destroys most of Catholic church in Petersburg

A fire has left Petersburg's St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in ruins.

No serious injuries were reported and the fire did not spread to any surrounding buildings, though smoke from the Thursday, July 6, blaze caused the Petersburg Medical Center and multiple businesses downtown to close.

According to parish priest Father Jose Thomas, a few people were attending a prayer service in the chapel when they heard glass shattering and were alerted to smoke coming from the office.

"We did not take anything (from the chapel), just the Eucharist ... the body of Christ, I just took that one, but then I just ran out of the building. Already the smoke was coming into the hallway, into the building," said Jose, who is in his first year at the church.

Don Koenigs has attended the church for more than 40 years. He was one of the parishioners at midday mass on Thursday.

"We were just ready to receive Holy Communion," Koenigs told Petersburg public radio station KFSK. "I looked up and I saw smoke billowing up above, so I ran out of the church immediately and could see that the church was on fire. I ran in and told Father, and I said, 'You have to take Jesus out of the tabernacle.'"

Ed Tagaban, a member of the parish, heard the building was on fire and rushed up to find the office engulfed in flames and helped those at the scene make sure no one was left in the building. "I was able to get out a couple of things, but the smoke was too bad."

The Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department received the call at 12:29 p.m. and initially responded with six to eight firefighters who began to spray down the building as smoke billowed out of the roof.

"Our main thing is we didn't have enough manpower starting off, it took us a little bit to get a crew in here and call in our reserves," Fire Department Director Aaron Hankins said. The turnout eventually totaled about 15 firefighters.

Neighboring houses in the path of the smoke were evacuated out of an abundance of caution. The smoke also caused cancellation of non-essential services for the day at the hospital, located two blocks downwind of the church.

The hospital used air scrubbers to maintain indoor air quality for long-term care residents and patients, and the hospital resumed normal operations the next day.

Most of the fire was concentrated around the kitchen, which is where part of the ceiling collapsed, as well as in the fellowship hall and the office. "It's pretty well gutted," Hankins said.

The chapel also suffered heavy smoke damage and the fire reportedly spread down from the ceiling and burned the walls and pews. Fire also spewed out from the base of the steeple, causing the metal to weaken and the steeple to eventually collapse.

"I really think that all in all, we're probably going to have a total loss with the building," fire department spokesperson Dave Berg told KFSK.

Hankins said that it is too early to know what caused the fire, and that Petersburg Fire Marshal Ryan Welde would conduct an investigation once there is no risk of the building collapsing.

Volunteers brought food and drinks to the firefighters who spent hours battling the flames.

When some of the smoke had cleared from the back rooms, crucifixes were recovered and given to Jose and members of the parish. It is also believed that some of the stained glass may be salvageable.

"It is a great loss to the community," Hankins said.

"It's tragic," Berg said. "As a person of faith, I mean it's tough to see a church in town pretty much destroyed like this. It's got to be heartbreaking to the Catholic community and to all of us."

While the fire was still burning, the church held an evening service inside the community gym to worship and discuss what the next steps should be. "This fire can consume our building, but not our hearts," Jose said.

"We will be as a community, we will be together, and we celebrate mass, and we will grow much better, so that's our hope."

St. Catherine of Siena has received offers from other churches and Petersburg Parks and Recreation to hold services in their buildings.

The church was built in the early 1960s. The rectory and community hall were added in 1975, according to the archdiocese newsletter.

The fire extended into the evening after it began burning the foam insulation between the roof and multiple layers of thick wooden beams lining the ceiling. Responders were initially worried about the integrity of the roof over the fellowship hall and the office, but after assessing its strength firefighters were able to climb on top of it.

"When we discovered what this structure of the roof was, we felt it was safe and we could get up there and cut a couple of trenches to be able to access the peak of the roof and be able to put water down these bays that existed up there," Berg said.

Firefighters continued to monitor and manage hot spots until leaving the scene around 11 p.m. Thursday, almost 11 hours after the fire was first reported.


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