Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 20, 2004
Arson suspected in church blaze
Firefighters powerless against inferno
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The Catholic community here has been left homeless following a devastating fire that may have been deliberately set.
RCMP is treating as suspicious the fire that destroyed the 19-year-old St. Joseph's Church and the attached Knights of Columbus Hall early on Sept. 14.
Witnesses spotted the flames at the St. Joseph's Parish Complex on Mink Creek Road just before 2 a.m. A passerby returning from work went to the nearby rectory and woke up the pastor, Father Limneo Zamora, a Filipino priest who had been appointed to the parish just two weeks ago.
The RCMP suspects arson but won't confirm it. "It's suspicious in nature just because of the way it burnt so rapidly but at this point we haven't been able to determine the (exact) cause," said Staff Sgt. Tom Pickard. "We are still investigating."
Pickard said the fire was devastating. "When the firemen arrived, the church was totally engulfed and there was little they could do (to save the church and the hall)," he said.
"It's totally destroyed. There are some walls that are still standing but not very much is left." Firemen were still putting out hot spots 10 hours after the fire.
Zamora, the parish priest, said a passerby woke him up and alerted him to the fire. When the surprised priest heard the frantic knocks on the door he thought somebody wanted his services because of sickness or death. But the passerby just wanted him to get out. "'Father, you must get out of the rectory because the church is burning,' he told me."
Zamora grabbed a few personal items and got out quickly. "I saw the church engulfed (in fire)," he said. "The firemen came five minutes later but there wasn't much they could do to save the church at that point."
Zamora had arrived at St. Joseph Parish Sept. 1 to replace Father Peter Tran. "I was beginning to organize myself when this happened," he lamented. "This is very sad."
The priest will stay at the home of one of his parishioners until he is allowed back in the rectory, which received only smoke damage. Church services will now be held at one of the two Catholic schools in town, probably the adjacent St. Mary's.
In addition to destroying the church, the fire also ravaged the bingo hall and the Knights of Columbus chambers.
Leo Zelinski, a Knights spokesperson and a parish leader, spent most of the night at the fire scene and then spoke to the media. "I was down (at the fire scene) at 2:15 a.m. and it was totally engulfed," he said.
Zelinski and Zamora had been at a council meeting at the hall only a couple of hours before the fire started. He left at 11 p.m. and everything was okay. "Within those three hours something happened and the fire could not have started without it being arson," he said. "And what else could have caused it; there was no activity or anything like that."
Zelinski ruled out mechanical malfunction because last year for the 50th anniversary of the parish the Knights had done extensive repairs to the complex, including new paint, a new roof and a thorough mechanical inspection.
He estimates it would cost anywhere from $2 million to $3 million to replace the 15,000 square-feet complex.
"Of course we feel devastated," he said. "Having everything disappear overnight is hard to take. But we are definitely going to rebuild. We have 350 families in this parish and we are not going to be left without a church."
The 400-seat church was built in 1985 at a cost of nearly $800,000. The K of C hall and the Knights' chambers were added 10 years ago at a cost of over $200,000. In recent years the parish and the Knights have spent more than $100,000 in renovations and additions to the complex.
Phyllis Harty, a St. Joseph's parishioner for the past 11 years, couldn't believe what had happened. "It's devastating," she said of the fire. "I feel violated that someone did this to us."