WHEELING, W.Va. — Memories of weddings, baptisms and services flashed through the minds of Benwood residents Monday night as they watched flames rip through one of their community’s pillars, St. John Catholic Church.
The fire broke out just before 9 p.m. and is believed to have started toward the rear of the structure, according to firefighters and witnesses. No one was injured, and firefighters managed to keep the blaze from spreading to other structures.
Officials said the church is likely a complete loss, but Benwood Assistant Fire Chief Ralph Brandon believes the adjacent Sts. James and John School can be saved.
Onlookers stared in awe, some with tears in their eyes, as firefighters from several area departments doused the 140-year-old church from all sides.
“It was my family church. … My sister got married in that church. My parents got married in that church,” said Jodi Fogle, who was staying with her ailing grandmother at her Sixth Street home.
Fogle said she was in an upstairs bedroom when she smelled smoke and heard a loud noise. When she went outside to investigate, she saw a small flame toward the rear of the church which before long was raging out of control.
“Within 10 minutes, the whole roof had collapsed,” she said.
For 43-year St. John member Dominick Giovengo, the shock and sadness of witnessing the destruction of what he calls his second home quickly turned into resolve.
“We have strong faith,” he said. “We will rebuild. … It might take us a while, but we will be back.”
Benwood resident Celise Roxby said she had just enrolled her 11-year-old daughter, Azriel, at Sts. James and John earlier that day. After being homeschooled, Azriel was looking forward to beginning classes there in about two weeks.
“Everybody was really nice,” Azriel said.
Diocese officials said late Monday the school sustained relatively minor damage, to utilities and a restroom, but it wasn’t immediately clear if classes would be canceled there, or for how long. The rectory sustained only water damage, but the church’s bell tower will have to come down.
“During this holiest of weeks on the Christian calendar, we are terribly saddened by the news of a devastating fire at St. John Church in Benwood tonight,” said the Most Rev. Michael J. Bransfield, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston. “I have spoken with our pastor there, Fr. Bekeh Utetitang, and although he is very shaken, we know that he made it out of the structure and is unharmed. … I ask the residents of the Ohio Valley to pray for the residents of Benwood and the people of St John Parish.”
Brandon said the cause of the fire is under investigation, and he expected crews to be on scene for most of the night putting down hot spots and keeping an eye on the building’s structural integrity.
“It’s a safety issue, now,” he said.