April 11, 2007

Arson fire destroys St. Anne Church in New Castle

St. Anne Church after a devastating fire (Photo by Eric Atkins)

St. Anne Church after a devastating fire (Photo by Eric Atkins)

By Mary Ann Wyand

(Listen to the author read this story)

NEW CASTLE—Fire destroyed historic St. Anne Church during the early morning hours on Holy Saturday, April 7.

Firefighters battled the blaze for five hours on Saturday morning and afternoon in windy and unseasonably cold weather. (See also: More Reaction | Photo Gallery | Make a donation to support the parish)

State Fire Marshal Roger Johnson and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials are investigating the fire, which gutted the interior of the 83-year-old brick church, burned through the roof and melted stained-glass windows.

Authorities told archdiocesan officials that they are conducting a criminal investigation due to the suspicious origin of the fire. They restricted access to the parish property, which was cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. On April 11, investigators reported that the fire was arson, though they did not release any further details.

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general, said that he and Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein are “very upset, very distraught, over the loss of St. Anne Church on Holy Saturday morning … but we’re thankful that nobody was injured in the fire. … Our prayers are with the people of St. Anne Parish and [Franciscan] Sister Shirley Gerth, the parish life coordinator.”

Archbishop Buechlein visited the site on Tuesday to see the damage firsthand.

Although most of the church roof was gone, a cross mounted above the front entrance of the church was not damaged. No estimate of damages was immediately available.

Eric Atkins, archdiocesan director of management services, said the archdiocese has insurance to cover the loss.

“We still need to do a thorough assessment of the church building to determine what’s structurally sound and what if anything can be salvaged,” Atkins said. “Because this is a crime scene, we have not been able to do that yet.”

Atkins said the sanctuary of the church was poured concrete, but the main floor of the church was wood. The main floor was destroyed in the fire and the pews are now in a heap of burned rubble in the basement of the church.

Located at 102 N. 19th St., St. Anne Church was a landmark in Henry County. The parish has about 300 households and 700 members.

Throughout the day, parishioners came to the Parish Life Center to mourn the loss of their church, comfort Sister Shirley and support each other on the eve of the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord.

Visibly shaken, Sister Shirley said the first Mass was celebrated in the church on Easter Sunday in 1924. St. Anne Parish was established in 1873 and the first church was built a few blocks from the present site.

Sister Shirley discovered the fire at 7:40 a.m. when she went to the church to turn up the heat [on] Saturday morning. Thick smoke billowed out when she opened the back door of the church.

“As I opened the door, the smoke just engulfed me,” she said. “My eyes smarted and I knew it was bad. So I ran over to the house and called 911, and they told me someone had already called them. I think somebody went by and saw the smoke. I didn’t see the flames yet, just all the smoke. But I’m sure it started hours before that. Then things really happened fast. I’m very happy that none of the police officers and firemen were [seriously] hurt.”

Sister Shirley has served as parish life coordinator of St. Anne Parish and St. Rose Parish in Knightstown since 1995.

St. Anne Church as it looked at a parish Mass in 2005 (Submitted photo)

St. Anne Church as it looked at a parish Mass in 2005 (Submitted photo)

After the Good Friday service at St. Anne Church on April 6, she helped parishioners decorate the church for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses.

“We decorated until 8:30 p.m. last night,” she said, “and everything was fine when I locked the church.”

She lives at the former rectory next to the church, and didn’t hear any unusual noises during the night.

While waiting for officials to take her inside the burned church so she could remove the Eucharist from the tabernacle, Sister Shirley talked about the sacrifices of the people who worked hard to build the second St. Anne Church after the difficult years of World War I.

“I can’t imagine the sacrifices of the early parishioners,” she said. “I guess that’s a consolation—our belief in the communion of saints and that all those people that ever walked in those doors and that are now in heaven are looking down upon us and praying for us.”

She also recalled countless memories of several generations of baptisms, first Communions, weddings and funeral Masses celebrated there.

Sister Shirley said five adults and one child were scheduled to be baptized during the Easter Vigil Mass at 8 p.m. at the church.

Instead, Father Joseph Rautenberg celebrated a shorter Vigil Mass at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in nearby Cambridge City. The church was filled to capacity with members of St. Anne, St. Rose and St. Elizabeth parishes seated in the pews or on folding chairs while others stood along the outside aisles.

Father Joseph Rautenberg, pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish and sacramental minister of St. Anne and St. Rose parishes, said it was “a real shock” to see the fire-ravaged church on Saturday morning and hours later he was still feeling “kind of numb.”

But even in the midst of the smoke and ashes from the still smoldering church, Sister Shirley talked about hastily made plans to celebrate an 8 a.m. Mass on Easter Sunday at Bundy Auditorium adjacent to New Castle Chrysler High School.

“Parishioners have come all day to see the church,” she said. “All this morning, they were just lined up here. They continued to come all day, and that was certainly a source of comfort for everyone, a source of support. Their faith is strong.

“We’re going to celebrate new life tomorrow,” Sister Shirley said. “We’re going to sing our Alleluias tomorrow. It’s Easter Sunday. It’s the feast of the Lord’s resurrection. It’s new life, and I think out of those ashes new life will come. We’re the people of God and our faith is strong. We are the Church and—as important as that building is—when we leave those doors we become Christ to others. Our faith will deepen. Surely we’ll grieve, but at the end of grief comes new life.”

She said New Castle Mayor Tom Nipp was on the scene for several hours as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. Pastors of several area churches offered their facilities.

“The community is reaching out to help us,” Sister Shirley said. “Their support has been wonderful.”

Father Rautenberg said Masses will probably be celebrated in the cafeteria of the former St. Anne School, now the Parish Life Center.

“Sister Shirley has certainly shown great faith,” he said. “This time of the year we celebrate new life out of dying. I think that’s our hope and our confidence for St. Anne’s—that new life will come out of this dying.”

A St. Anne parishioner lamented that “a lot of history is gone,” he said, “but I think the history is still there. This is a part of that history and the parish continues ... the faith goes on. But if I feel like a little bit of home was lost, I can imagine people who were there all their life feeling that way. There was certainly sadness. There was grief.

“It is a tragedy, but it has triggered a great outpouring of community support,” Father Rautenberg said. “It is also reassuring that when tragedy happens we’ve got people to help take care of it. We thank the archdiocese for their support, and ask our brothers and sisters in the archdiocese for their prayers.”

Purdue University sophomore Kevin Cool has helped serve at Masses at St. Anne Church since he was a fifth-grader. He came home to spend the Easter holiday with his family and had planned to serve at the Easter Vigil Mass.

Instead, he and his father, Bill Cool, spent Saturday morning and afternoon at the Parish Life Center with other parishioners watching firefighters pour water on the blackened ruins of their church.

“During college, I’d serve at Christmas and Easter Masses,” Kevin Cool said. “Luckily, I was able to come last night for Good Friday, which turned out to be the last service in the church. I wish that I’d served then. … I was baptized here. I had first Communion here. … It was a very bright church inside, and the brightness is what I’ll always remember.

“Sometimes tomorrow isn’t always like today,” he said. “It brings new events and obstacles you have to overcome, but the world keeps turning. We have our community. We have each other. … It was a building, but the Church—that’s the people, that’s us together.

“This morning, parishioners were here for each other, watching it go down together,” he said. “We read in one of the [parish] directories that the first Mass was on Easter. It’s kind of ironic. It’s still not even real yet. I don’t know when it will sink in. If you’re trying to put it into words, I think you’re kind of cheating the situation a little bit because you can’t.”

Parishioner Twilla Deaton was baptized at St. Anne Church 50 years ago.

“I made all my sacraments here,” Deaton said. “… Our grandfather helped build this church. It felt like a death today. We’ve all been mourning the loss of our church. It’s like losing a family member. There’s so much history, and part of us is here. It’s the only parish I’ve ever known. It’s my home church. … But we’re OK. We’ll celebrate tomorrow on Easter Sunday. We’re going to sing joyful songs and we’re going to be OK.” †

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