St. Mary parish forges ahead after fire
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., May. 21, 2013
Four days after a fire ripped through a portion of St. Mary Catholic Church in Willimantic, Jeffrey Ellis was answering the phone at the church’s main number. Ellis is a member of the St. Mary parish, and a seminary student. He is halfway through a six-year course of study required to become a priest. Ellis said that parishioners have not yet been allowed to venture back into the building.
The fire broke out at about 6:30 p.m., on May 16, during Willimantic’s first Third Thursday street festival of 2013. Though the main festival continued without a hitch, many spectators ended up at Jillson Square, watching the drama unfold as at least 11 different fire companies arrived to battle the blaze. Spectators talked of recent renovations to the church, but firefighters at the scene said that it was too early to determine the cause of the blaze. Four days later, Ellis said that parishioners were still waiting to hear what might have caused the fire. “The investigation is ongoing, and they haven’t been able to provide us with any information yet,” he said.
Also ongoing, said Ellis, is an assessment of the building’s integrity and a survey of the extent of the damages. But the hope of the congregation, which has been holding services in the historic building for more than 110 years, is that repairs can be made and the parish can return to its home building. “That’s certainly everybody’s hope,” said Ellis.
For now, daily Mass continues to be held at 7:30 a.m. every morning in a chapel attached to the parish center. The chapel is too small for the entire congregation, however. So nearby St. Joseph’s, another Willimantic Roman Catholic parish, has offered the use of its sanctuary. “Our prayers are with all of our parish brothers and sisters from Saint Mary's,” reads a message on the home page of the St. Joseph’s website. “Please know that all of us at Saint Joseph will do all we can during this time to assist you.”
“They have allowed us to schedule two services there,” said Ellis. Services at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and 11:30 a.m. on Sunday will allow for the entire St. Mary’s congregation to worship together while their home building is in limbo.
St. Mary-St. Joseph School, a pre-K through eighth-grade school affiliated with both churches, is located next door to the St. Mary building. The school was not damaged by the fire, and classes have gone on as usual. “They were able to hold classes the next day,” said Ellis.
A bright spot for the St. Mary congregation is some of the items that were recovered from the building. “We’ve managed to retrieve some of the sacred vessels,” said Ellis. Once the fire was contained, first responders were able to go in and retrieve the priest’s vestments and some of the candles used for worship. “They were able to retrieve the Celebrant’s chair, which is where the priest sits,” said Ellis.
For a couple of days after the fire, parishioners wondered about the fate of the sanctuary lamp and the Tabernacle, both fairly new and holding significant importance for the congregation. The Tabernacle stores the Holy Communion, said Ellis, “so it’s the holiest place in the church, really." The sanctuary lamp hangs above the Tabernacle, and shines down upon it. Both items were located in areas of the church thought to be heavily involved in the blaze.
“We didn’t know whether they’d been destroyed or damaged by fire or water,” said Ellis. When investigators were able to go in days later, “people were very relieved to find out [the items] were okay,” said Ellis. “They’re certainly symbols of hope for us that we’ll be able to recover.” Likewise, very few of the building’s stained glass windows were damaged. “It’s pretty miraculous that most of that was preserved,” said Ellis.
As for St. Mary’s leader, the Rev. Roger J. Lamoureux, Ellis said that he is “doing fantastic.” At a weekend Mass following the blaze, “He was given a standing ovation,” said Ellis. “He’s acting as a true shepherd for the congregation during this difficult time.”