By Jay Nies, Catholic Missourian
Deacon Ken Berry looked up through searing heat and choking haze and saw an image of the Blessed Mother.
“It’s her feastday. She’s watching out for us. She’s interceding for us,” Deacon Berry thought on Aug. 15 as volunteers retrieved the baptistery, pulpit and every piece of artwork after a still-smoldering blaze in Edina’s historical St. Joseph Church.
No injuries were reported in the multi-alarm afternoon fire on the Solemnity of the Assumption, but the newly renovated church, built in 1874, is likely to be out of commission for months.
Brad Copeland, diocesan director of buildings and properties, estimated the fire, smoke and water damage to the massive edifice to be “upwards of three-quarters of a million.” The property is fully insured.
The fire, the cause of which has yet to be determined, gutted the sacristy, destroyed the electrical system and filled the interior of one of the diocese’s largest churches with pungent ash and soot.
Two 19th century stained glass windows from Germany were also destroyed.
Fire inspectors and engineers say the building remains structurally sound.
Preliminary cleanup began Aug. 20, the day after the state fire marshal finished investigating the fire’s cause.
“We’re doing okay,” said Father Joseph Hoi, pastor of the Edina, Memphis and Baring parishes. “We’ve survived major setbacks before and have been made stronger for it. God will help us if we trust Him and cooperate with Him.”
Ganging up on the fire
More than 60 volunteer and full-time firefighters from Edina and surrounding communities responded to the fire.
Fr. Hoi had offered Mass in the church that morning. People there as late as 11:30 a.m. detected no sign of fire.
By 3 p.m., flames were shooting out of the sacristy window.
Lifelong St. Joseph parishioner Kelly Hayes, a sergeant with the Edina Police Department and a member of the Edina Volunteer Fire Department, was in the first fire truck to arrive at the church. He and another firefighter simultaneously kicked open two locked the doors to the sacristy, seconds before the burning ceiling collapsed.
“Thank God we weren’t already in there when it fell,” he said.
Four firefighters climbed the stairs behind the sacristy to battle the flames in the attic. The fire had consumed most of the air, so they couldn’t breathe and they couldn’t see through the smoke. Sgt. Hayes realized that something had to give.
“I got a ladder and went around to the north side of the church,” he said. “As hard as it was to have to do it, we broke out one of the historic stained glass windows, to get ventilation to our fellow firefighters up there.”
The window was very well made and didn’t want to shatter, he noted.
Edina Fire Chief Martin Edwards sent out calls to every neighboring fire department and to Kirksville, which has the only aerial truck in the area.
“By the time you get up in this big church and wind up these big stairs into the areas you don’t know enough about, you’re out of air and you’ve got to get back down,” said Sgt. Hayes. “So it was a God-send to get the areal truck up here so they could get up to that level and still have air.”
“It was hard to get to the fire, but we did — we got it,” the fire chief told David Sharp of the Edina Sentinel newspaper. “I’m proud of my guys. I’m proud with everybody who helped us. We live in a wonderful community here.”
Neighbors in action
Sgt. Hayes noted that people from all over the community pitched in to help the firefighters.
“The church ladies had a sandwich brigade going,” he said. “A couple of the businesses brought things down for the firefighters.”
As soon as it was safe to do so, Fr. Hoi entered the church to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament, which was in a tabernacle embedded in the wall at the back of the sanctuary.
St. Joseph parishioners and volunteers from other local congregations then rushed in to get the historical artwork and sanctuary furnishings out.
The last piece they moved was the statue of the Blessed Mother, which was mounted to the wall that had helped keep the fire from spreading from the sacristy to the rest of the church.
That was the statue Deacon Berry saw when he peered into the church from the vestibule.
A time to witness
Arriving from Jefferson City late in the afternoon, Bishop John R. Gaydos said he’s well aware of the impressive history, generous spirit and strong faith that help define St. Joseph parish.
“Our whole local Church grieves over what has been lost here,” he stated. “But before long, that grief will turn to excitement and anticipation. God will use you — the living stones of the Holy Roman Catholic Church in this corner of His vineyard — to repair this place of worship and open yet another chapter of His glorious mission here.”
Sunday Masses will be offered for the foreseeable future in the Knights of Columbus Hall, down Main Street from the church.
On Aug. 18, Deacon Berry preached a homily on Hebrews 12:1-4, in which the writer urges the faithful to persevere in running the good race and keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus.
The deacon reminded the faithful that there are always obstacles in life, but a great cloud of witnesses — including the saints and generations of past parishioners — are cheering and interceding from heaven.
He stressed the importance of coming together as a community to worship God and to celebrate.
“Now is not the time to be skipping out on Mass,” he said. “Now is the time to come together as a faith community. And through that, we’ll get through this.”
He said that by keeping their eyes focused on Jesus and reaching out to other people, especially those who have become lax in the practice of their faith, the Catholics of St. Joseph parish can help God bring good out of a bad situation.
“This will be a time for us to witness to our faith to all people of Knox County,” he said.
Where Fr. Tolton preached
Mr. Copeland said the antique windows and other furnishings have been appraised, photographed and extensively documented. He believes everything can be restored or replaced to the exact specifications.
The church was built from local materials in 1874, mostly by parishioners who had immigrated from Ireland and Germany with exceptional building skills. The bell tower was added in 1890.
Some still refer to the massive edifice as “the Cathedral of the North.” Until the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City was completed in 1968, the Edina church was the diocese’s largest church building.
The parish was founded in 1844, following the arrival of Catholic frontiersmen in the 1830s. In 1868, parishioner William Clancy, encouraged by longtime pastor Father John Fitzgerald, sent letters to newspapers and Catholic journals all over the country, praising the parish and its school and inviting Catholics of all nationalities to settle in the area.
The resulting swell of new parishioners prompted the building of the current church, which holds about 1,000 people.
Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, a Missouri native and the Roman Catholic Church’s first black priest in North America, offered Mass and preached a mission in the church on March 19, 1889.
The building’s interior was remodeled extensively in 1965, 1988 and 2010.
Although much of the local population has shifted away over the years, the parish remains vibrant, and the church still overflows for Midnight Mass each Christmas.
Church of God
Since the fire, parishioners have been coming forward to ask what they can do to help — as have numerous others with familial or ancestral ties to the parish.
They speak with awe of the display of cooperation they witnessed the day of the fire.
“It was wonderful to see so many people from our own community and from all over the county helping out,” said parishioner Betty Harrison. “Firefighters came from several different places. Town people did whatever they could. We appreciate all of their help.”
Parishioner Anne Gramling said it felt like a death in the family when she heard the church was burning.
“But people really came together on that day. And I think it’s going to be a uniting thing, I really do,” said Mrs. Gramling, who taught for 20 years at Edina’s former St. Joseph School.
“We are the Body of Christ, the Church of God,” she stated. “We don’t have to have a big, beautiful building to worship the Lord — although it’s certainly nice.”
Road to renewal
As soon as the fire marshal gave clearance on Aug. 19, Mr. Copeland and a group of parishioners toured the ruins of the sacristy and climbed into the catwalks above the church ceiling.
There, they found charred insulation and thick soot covering the inside of the roof and the heavy timbers that support it.
“It’s solid, but it’s a mess up there,” said Mr. Copeland.
Parishioner Larry Clark noted that when the church was renovated in 2010, parishioners decided to lay half-inch-thick sheetrock over the deteriorated plaster on the walls of the sanctuary and the half-dome above the altar.
“Turns out, that added to the fire barrier,” he said. “And the area right behind the statue of Mary got intensely hot. The fire marshal said temperatures (behind that wall) were in excess of 1,200 degrees.”
But the fire did not burn through the wall.
“Had it gone through there, we would have lost the whole church,” said Mr. Clark.
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Sgt. Hayes. “I don’t know exactly what the reason was for this, but I saw a lot of community come together to save the day.
“You know, this is the church structure, but the Church itself is the people of God who all came together,” he said.
Deacon Berry believes this experience will draw parishioners closer together into a stronger community.
“It’s also an opportunity bring back those who are not coming to Mass,” he said.
“I think we’re going to be really blessed by all of this,” said Mrs. Gramling. “But we have to pray for patience as we wait to get back in.”
Edina parishioner Dot Kriegshauser, who has lived next door to Edina’s St. Joseph Church all her life and whose father rang the bell every day for 50 years, hopes to post pictures of the restoration on a Facebook group page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/85897552604/
Contributing to this article were Echo Menges and David Sharp of the Edina Sentinel newspaper staff (www.nemonews.net).