Church damaged by electrical fire

April 04, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Like churches throughout the area, St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore was all decked out for Easter yesterday.

Multi-colored flowers adorned the sanctuary. Programs and prayer books were set out. Small candles were on sale for a quarter each.

But instead of celebrating the resurrection of Christ, priests and parishioners were left talking about the restoration of their church after a pre-dawn electrical fire that damaged the roof and caused the cancellation of Easter Masses.

While lamenting their church being damaged on Easter, they also were counting their blessings -- the church was empty at the time of the fire.

"My first reaction was 'Dear God, look what happened,' " said the Rev. Michael Sergi, pastor of the 82-year-old church at the corner of Ashland and Collington avenues. "But my very next thought was 'Thank God, no one was hurt.'

"This we can fix. We'll go on," he added.

Many stunned parishioners learned of the fire when they arrived for one of three scheduled morning Masses, only to find the street blocked off and fire trucks lined up in front of the church. Others, told of the fire by friends or relatives, came by to see the damage first-hand and to console one another.

Nancy Kabata, 43, saw the fire trucks in front of the stone building as she arrived for 11 o'clock Mass.

"It scared me," she said. "I thought one of the priests was hurt."

Ms. Kabata said she would not go to another church for Mass. "I'm just going to go home."

Angela Smothers, 30, a member of St. Wenceslaus' choir, received an early morning phone call from another choir member.

"I jumped out of bed, put my clothes on and came over here," said Ms. Smothers, who was dressed in a jogging suit.

She said she was upset by the fire -- "not just because it's Easter Sunday."

"This church is a big part of my life," she said.

Archbishop William H. Keeler, head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, phoned St. Wenceslaus after hearing of the fire. "Even though services are interrupted, I give thanks that nobody's hurt," he said.

Outside the church late yesterday morning was a pile of charred beams that firefighters had hacked away from the rafters of the castle-like structure. Inside, there was a hole in the church's 80-foot ceiling, where one of four large chandeliers had come crashing down. Puddles of murky black water soiled the floor.

Chief Francis Clemens of the Fire Department's 2nd Battalion described the damage as "significant" but said, "I couldn't give you a dollar figure on it."

He said the fire started when the chandelier's wiring shorted out; firefighters cut several holes in a side roof above a catwalk to extinguish it. "Another half hour and the whole roof could have been gone."

The fire was discovered shortly before 6 a.m. by Brother Vincent Hoerner, who lives with other church officials in a small house next door.

Brother Hoerner went out to get the morning paper when he smelled smoke coming from the church and went inside.

"This whole place was filling up with smoke," he said of the cavernous church.

He rushed back to the house to alert other church officials, who called the fire department.

Father Sergi said he was thankful the fire didn't break out Saturday night, when nearly half of St. Wenceslaus' 230 parishioners were in the church for an Easter vigil and many could have been hurt by the falling chandelier.

He said the church had fire insurance and he hoped it would reopen this week after a complete inspection of the electrical system.

And the subject of the homily he never got to deliver?

"Basically that the Lord has risen and that we don't have to be afraid of anything," he said, adding, "We don't have to be afraid of the drugs, and we don't have to be afraid of this fire."

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