'This fire can consume our building, but not our hearts'
Community reels from devastating fire at Catholic Church
July 6, 2023
The St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church caught fire Thursday afternoon, leaving much of the building in ruins and covering Petersburg in smoke.
There were no serious injuries reported and the fire did not spread to the surrounding buildings, however smoke from the blaze caused the Petersburg Medical Center and multiple businesses downtown to close.
According to Fr. Jose Thomas, the parish priest at St. Catherine of Siena, 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, you know, 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," Fr. Jose said.
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," Tagaban said.
The Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department received the call around 12:30 p.m. and initially responded with around 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/EMS/SAR Director Aaron Hankins said.
"Even though we couldn't really get on top right away, overall I think we've done the best we could with what we had," he later added.
Assistant Fire Chief Dave Berg was in Scow Bay when he got the call.
By the time he drove into town, heavy smoke was already pouring down main street, leading him to believe that the fire was trapped.
"Smoke from a building like this would normally go straight up in the air, but if it's cooled down for some reason then it kind of lays and floats downhill," Berg said.
Neighboring houses in the path of the smoke were evacuated out of an abundance of caution.
The smoke also caused non-essential services to be canceled for the day at the hospital, located two blocks downwind of the church.
PMC used air scrubbers to maintain indoor air quality for long-term care patients and in-patients, and the hospital resumed normal operations on Friday.
Eventually on Thursday, a total of around 15 firefighters arrived to help contain the blaze.
The PVFD deployed three fire engines and multiple hoses around the building to attack the fire from different angles.
Early on in the fight, firefighters cut holes into the roof using power saws to help get water into the building, but it continued to burn.
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 some of 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.
Hankins said that it is too early to know what caused the fire and that Fire Marshal Ryan Welde would conduct a local investigation once there is no risk of the building collapsing.
EMS and SAR volunteers and the Petersburg Police Department also responded to the fire.
An aid station was set up outside of Stedman Elementary School, across the street from the fire, to cool down and monitor the health of the firefighters on the hot day.
Other volunteers also brought food and drinks to the firefighters who spent hours battling the flames.
"It's kind of been a whole department effort so I'm proud of everyone involved," Hankins said.
When some of the smoke had cleared from the back rooms, crucifixes were recovered from the church and given to Fr. 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.
"We do feel for the members of the congregation and the members of the community affected, and we hope that it hopefully can be rebuilt and brought back to what they need it to be."
"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 raging, the church held a service inside the Parks & Recreation Community Gym Thursday evening to worship and discuss what their next steps should be.
"This fire can consume our building, but not our hearts," Fr. 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 Parks & Recreation to hold services in their buildings.
The fire was prolonged 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.
Berg reported that the fire was mostly extinguished by around 9 p.m. but firefighters continued to monitor and manage hot spots until leaving the scene around 11 p.m.
"Thank you to all the people, firefighters, those who have been working to control this fire," Fr. Jose said.
"Thank you for all the support given by the community."
This story will be updated.