Things were buzzing around the radio station on June 3, 2004, three years ago today. I and the news team were getting ready to pick up 12 awards from the Associated Press at the annual AP convention in Ocean City that weekend, after which LC and I would spend a week of vacation there. It was a gorgeous, warm day.
I ducked downstairs to the production area to record a newscast for a DC station. Then one of the production interns told me that he heard on the scanners that a large fire had broken out at St. Peter the Apostle church in Libertytown.
I had just gone to church there the previous Sunday, not yet a member of the parish. I knew a few families from my former covenant community who went there. I recall the 133-year-old church as being rather dark, but very traditional and peaceful. It wasn't the largest sanctuary, and probably needed expansion of some sort; the possibility of building a new church on some land to the north had been kicked around, especially with the parish approaching 2,000 families. Father (now Monsignior) John Dietzenbach was all set to transfer to another parish to the west.
So it was with mixed feelings that I drove out to the Church. And it didn't take long for me to see the smoke billowing in the distance. By the time I arrived, the fire was fully involved with a snorkel truck trying to put out the fire in the steeple -- or what was now left of it -- and water pouring down the marble front steps.
Only days after Fr. John had climbed up on the scaffolding where the steeple was being rebuilt to bless and dedicate it, the heat from a worker's device ignited the fire in the steeple. It quickly spread into the roof, where the dry timbers gave the fire more than enough fuel. Fr. John rushed in early on to save the Eucharist and his vestments when the fire was first reported by some truck drivers heading toward the industrial town of Union Bridge. He later said he could already see the fire in the roof.
Over 100 firefighters, including some from the parish who were volunteers in Libertytown, were called in. But the scaffolding didn't allow for the fire to be fought properly, so the incident commander issued an evacuation call. Miraculously, only one firefighter was injured. Eventually, five alarms (not four as reported) had to be called out.
The steeple and the roof collapsed, guaranteeing that the historic church would be a total loss. But later found in the wreckage were the Book of the Gospels and the huge painting of the Crucifixion behind the altar, both salvageable. The side walls and the entrance were more or less intact, but the walls had to be supported lest they fall. The fire also damaged Fr. John's residence next to the church, although he also ran in there to grab his appointment book!
Church staffers, parishioners, local residents, and passers-by watched the flames helplessly. But as I talked to them for my news story, I got the sense that they were rightfully saddened by the tragedy, but they also knew that the parish was much more than a building. No one was despairing. And it seemed that everyone was being drawn together. That really affected me.
I made sure that the station made mention of the fire that afternoon during breaks in the Orioles game, which pre-empted normal newscasts.
It was then that I decided I wanted to be part of that parish, and LC agreed. We haven't regretted it since. I also appreciated that St. Peter's was going to continue many of its outreaches to the poor and needy in spite of its own need. Also, numerous churches, both Catholic and not, helped out, as did many other area organizations. Ever since, we have held Mass in the parish hall.
Since then, there have been numerous fund-raisers for the new church that is being built around the walls of the 133-year-old one. One of them was a yard sale yesterday that LC and I participated in (we did well, but sure didn't raise as much money as we paid for all that schtuff!), and our space fee and the proceeds from the BBQ chicken lunch went to the building fund. A Tex-Mex restaurant donated proceeds over two nights to the fund. We bought a cross made from the wood of the destroyed pews, and that money went to the fund. And just a couple weeks ago, an area Lutheran church gave $10,000. Wow. We still have a way to go, but I believe God will get us there. Fr. John has stayed on as pastor to oversee the rebuilding.
Here are several different stories on the fire from the Gazette. And you can actually order a DVD telling the story of what happened before, during, and after the fire; proceeds go to the building fund.
Oh, and one more thing: I won another AP award for my live coverage of the fire. :-)