April 20, 2007

Church fire ruled arson; outpouring of support continues

The rubble inside St. Anne Church in New Castle shows the devastation caused by the April 7 fire. (Photo by Eric Atkins)

The rubble inside St. Anne Church in New Castle shows the devastation caused by the April 7 fire. (Photo by Eric Atkins)

By Mary Ann Wyand

NEW CASTLE—St. Anne parishioners mourning the loss of their historic church were stunned to learn last week that the early morning fire on Holy Saturday, April 7, was caused by arson.

The April 11 statement released by the state fire marshal’s office, federal Bureau

of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Indiana State Police, and New Castle police and fire departments did not comment on a possible motive for the crime, which is still under investigation.

An anonymous donor has given a $25,000 reward to Henry County Crime Stoppers for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the fire. Anyone with information should contact Henry County Crime Stoppers at 765-521-3777 or the New Castle Police Department at 765-529-4890.

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general, said last week that, “As distressing as the fire is, it’s even more distressing to know that somebody deliberately set the church on fire.

“And as difficult as it may seem following Jesus’ words on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,’ ” Msgr. Schaedel said, “we pray for those who caused this terrible, terrible tragedy in New Castle. Our prayers are with everybody.”

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein viewed the fire damage on April 10 from the front entrance of the church then talked with parish staff members and parishioners at the Parish Life Center.

The archbishop said it is his desire to rebuild the church, but the first step is to gather all the necessary information from the engineers and insurance adjusters.

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, parish life coordinator, said she appreciates the archbishop’s kindness, compassion, concern and prayers for the people of St. Anne Parish as well as the outpouring of support from so many people throughout the archdiocese.

Archbishop Buechlein “listened and expressed his sympathy and his prayers,” Sister Shirley said. “And then we talked about the reward, and he thought that was a good idea. He also expressed concern for our safety here. It was a beautiful experience … the voice and the face of Christ.”

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, parish life coordinator, holds a ciborium taken out of the burned church. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, parish life coordinator of St. Anne Parish in New Castle, holds a ciborium taken out of the tabernacle of the burned church. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

Masses will be held at the former school cafeteria in the basement of the Parish Life Center with an altar provided by St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fortville.

Eric Atkins, archdiocesan director of management services and a licensed architect, is working with insurance underwriters and a structural engineer to determine a damage estimate.

“They are still in the process of doing their evaluation,” Atkins said on April 16. “More people are arriving from New York this week to do an additional evaluation. Until we get their final report, we don’t know the true cost of the loss.”

Atkins said the blackened remains of the brick church are cordoned off for safety reasons and 24-hour security is still in place.

“It’s structurally unsafe right now,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of water in the basement as a result of fighting the fire [and] a tremendous amount of debris in the church.

“The windstorm on Wednesday evening of last week blew off quite a bit of slate from the roof that had not fallen during the fire,” Atkins said. “The roof is very unstable. The slate that is still up there is sliding off hourly and … can cause a tremendous amount of damage if it should hit someone or something.”

On April 10, a New Castle firefighter climbed through the rubble in the basement then placed a ladder below the tabernacle, visible through a hole in the main floor, and was able to use the ladder to remove it.

Sister Shirley said she opened the fire-damaged tabernacle to recover the ciborium containing the Eucharist. According to Church regulations, the Blessed Sacrament was buried on parish property.

“The ciborium had fallen over inside the tabernacle, but the lid was still on,” she said. “But the hosts tasted like smoke and could not be consumed. I was able to clean the ciborium and it almost looks like new. We will be using it at Masses. I can’t wait to show it to parishioners.”

During 12 years of ministry at St. Anne Parish, Sister Shirley said the people have become like family members to her and she shares their grief.

She is still coping with the fact that everything was fine in the church when she locked the doors at 8:30 p.m. on Good Friday then the church was consumed by fire a few hours later.

“For many of them, it was 30, 40 or 50 years of memories of the church,” she said. “I try to look at the church as often as I can—just stand and look at it—and that helps it to become a reality.”

She said parishioners organized a weeklong prayer vigil from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. at the Parish Life Center.

“Our prayers are that new life will come out of those ashes,” Sister Shirley said, “and that the Spirit will descend upon the team investigating this so that we can find answers someday and be assured that it’s not going to happen again to anyone—to get them off the streets. That’s one reason the reward was offered.”

She said a “Time of Healing” memorial service for parishioners and community members was held on April 14 at Sproles Family Funeral Home in New Castle.

“When I ask the question ‘Why?’ I hear silence,” Sister Shirley said. “When I ask the question ‘How?’ … I am reminded of the goodness of people, which has been overwhelming … and has helped me hear the voice of Christ and see the face of Christ” in this tragedy.

“To begin healing, you have to find forgiveness deep in your heart,” she said. “I’ve always believed—and I’ve said it a hundred times this week—that forgiveness happens in bits and pieces. Rarely, I think, does it happen all at once. I think we’re all still in denial. There’s no neat package to the stages of grieving. We continue to look at the church and it doesn’t seem real, but I know that good will come out of this.”

As a Franciscan, Sister Shirley said she finds comfort in Christ’s call to St. Francis of Assisi to “rebuild my Church.”

She also gains solace from Scripture, especially St. Paul’s words to the Philippians that, “I have strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:13).

Father Joseph Rautenberg, pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Cambridge City and sacramental minister of St. Anne Parish and St. Rose Parish in Knightstown, said parishioners demonstrated their strong faith and hope during the Easter Sunday Mass at Bundy Auditorium adjacent to New Castle Chrysler High School.

“I think the test of that spirit for all of us is going to be whether we can sustain that vision of hope over the long haul,” Father Rautenberg said. “I’m confident that Sister Shirley and the parishioners will be up to it, but

people need to keep us in their prayers.”

Father Stanley Herber, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville, dean of the Connersville Deanery and priest moderator of St. Anne Parish, said losing the church is like “a death in the family.”

During his homily on Easter, he asked Connersville area Catholics to pray for St. Anne parishioners.

“I was thinking that the people, at least for another

generation or two, will always remember Holy Saturday morning, the day their church burned,” Father Herber said. “It will be forever in their memory. They will ask each other, ‘Where were you when you heard the news that our parish church burned?’”†

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