September 18, 2015

St. Monica members hopeful ‘God will work through the ashes’ after fire destroys narthex

Overcast sunlight filters through the gaps of the burned roof onto the ashes and clutter of St. Monica Parish’s narthex on Sept. 9. Fire destroyed the narthex of the northwest side Indianapolis church earlier that morning. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Overcast sunlight filters through the gaps of the burned roof onto the ashes and clutter of St. Monica Parish’s narthex on Sept. 9. Fire destroyed the narthex of the northwest side Indianapolis church earlier that morning. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Driving onto the grounds of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis on the morning of Sept. 9, the first noticeable change was the partially missing, partially sagging burned roof of the church’s narthex. What remained of the roof seemed to be draped in a banner of mournful black.

The pungent smell of wet, charred wood permeated the air, intensified by a light drizzle of rain. But the spirit of the parish was not dampened.

Despite the two-alarm fire that started around 4 a.m. and destroyed the church narthex, the 8 a.m. Mass was still celebrated, albeit in the gym rather than the sanctuary.

(Related: See a photo gallery of the damage)

“A building, while it may have sentimental value, at the end of the day is still just a building,” said Father Todd Goodson, pastor of St. Monica Parish, during the homily. “And we, united by the Eucharist, are the Church. We are the body of Christ sent out into the world. … We will go on proclaiming the Gospel. Us gathering around the Eucharist and praying together is, in fact, what makes us the Church.”

No one was injured in the fire, which has been ruled accidental, although an official cause has not been declared.

The narthex was destroyed, and the sanctuary, parish offices and surrounding areas sustained extensive water and smoke damage.

While the school did not incur any damage, classes at St. Monica School were cancelled until Sept. 14.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin expects the parish to surmount the challenges of the fire. He said his experience with members of the parish “lead me to believe that the parish will not only recover, but will prosper from this tragedy. They will emerge from this even stronger as a community.”

During the parish’s Sept. 12 Vigil Mass three days after the fire, Father Goodson said that the parish will continue to celebrate its regular Mass and eucharistic adoration schedule in the gym until the church can be used again.

While he expressed hope that the parish church might be restored within three months, no specific time table for reuse of the church or reconstruction of the narthex has been set. The archdiocese is working with St. Monica and insurance companies to establish a loss value and schedule for moving forward.

“We’re all reacting and trying to keep things moving forward as best we can,” Father Goodson said on the morning of the fire. “It’s a little emotional. No pastor wants to have a fire in his church.”

But there were blessings to be counted, as Father Goodson pointed out in a message posted on the parish’s website.

He praised the Indianapolis and Pike Township fire departments “for their quick response to the fire. They very quickly contained the fire in the narthex and saved the church building, our chapels and school.”

St. Monica School principal Michelle Boyd found blessing in the time of the blaze.

“When it happens at four in the morning, you’re blessed no one is in the building at that time,” she said.

Around 5:15 a.m., Father Goodson called Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin to inform him of the fire.

“I only live a few miles from [the parish],” the archbishop said. “I put on my blacks and got there as quickly as I could,” arriving while the flames were still being extinguished in the early morning darkness.

Deciding to move forward with the scheduled 8 a.m. school Mass despite the cancellation of classes, Father Goodson, the archbishop, parish staff and parishioners moved an altar and other items for the Mass from the parish’s Daily Chapel to the gym.

“We had to move [the items] by the light of our cell phones because they had cut off the electricity,” the archbishop said.

At the close of the Mass attended by approximately 100 people, parishioner Jane Fischer spontaneously started singing the spiritual song, “This Little Light of Mine,” and was soon joined by many others in the congregation.

“At first my heart was sad,” Fischer recalled upon hearing word of the fire via an early morning text message from a friend. “Then I knew everything would be fine. It’s a very spirit-filled parish.”

St. Monica School fourth-grade student Simon Lehmkuhler wasn’t so sure at first.

“I was scared the church would be demolished from the fire,” he said after the early morning Mass. “[The church] is important because it’s God’s house.”

His mother, Sarah, said she and her husband, Phil, brought Simon and his two first-grade siblings to the Mass because the children “were very upset, and they needed to come see that we would still be active as a church.

“[The Mass] was pretty emotional,” Lehmkuhler said. “I was fighting back tears. It’s a great community, and like Father said, we’re still going to be a great community.”

St. Monica parishioner Dyan Huey was optimistic and hopeful as she left the early morning Mass in the gym after the fire.

“When the fire happened three years ago at St. John [the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis], it was a real catalyst for the parish,” she said. “They pulled together, and what came out of the ashes was more beautiful spiritually and physically.

“God will work through the ashes here, too.”

(Criterion reporter Sean Gallagher contributed to this article.)

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