BENWOOD, W.Va. — Students at SS. James and John School in Benwood are without classrooms for at least two weeks – and maybe longer – after Monday’s fire at St. John Catholic Church adjacent to the school.
Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston officials said Tuesday it will be a slow process for deciding how to move forward with operating the school, and the future of the church after fire gutted it and caused smoke and water damage to the school property.
The church, located on Main Street in the middle of Benwood, caught fire Monday night and burned for hours. On Tuesday, safety remained the main concern for dealing with the dismantling of the church property and cleaning up the school. The massive wood trusses posed the greatest threat, with one falling Tuesday afternoon as the wind picked up.
“Safety is our greatest concern,” said Monsignor Frederick Annie, vicar general for the diocese. “The property is not safe and we don’t want to encourage anyone to go near there. The fire marshal was expected there” Tuesday.
After a meeting with diocesan officials, the church pastor, engineers and others, Annie said they realize the process for making plans for the future will be time-consuming. He said even if they find a place to relocate classes, it will be a major undertaking to move desks, computers, books and everything needed to hold classes. As it stands, students will be out of school until at least April 13.
“What you find out is that it will take time to formulate a plan,” Annie said.
For now, parishioners will be welcome to attend Mass and other services at St. James Catholic Church in McMechen. It is the sister church to St. John, and the Rev. Bekeh Utietiang serves as pastor at both churches. Utietiang is now residing at St. Alphonsus Church in Center Wheeling as the rectory at St. John Church was affected by the fire.
“Let us celebrate Holy Week and then Easter together as a parish family. We will need each other more than ever as we work to overcome the obstacles this fire has presented. As I challenged you last Sunday, this week is about Jesus and we will suffer with Him by offering up our pains, challenges and inconveniences. Our community has been handed a heavy cross, we will bear it with Christ this week as we celebrate the Sacred Triduum. I thank you for your patience, faithfulness and flexibility,” Utietiang wrote in a letter to parishioners.
Meanwhile, parishioners and Benwood residents visited the church to see the extent of the damage in the daylight.
“This church was the heart of Benwood,” said Trudy Forster, who has served as the church’s secretary for many years. “But we will come back from this.”
Forster said the rectory housekeeper, who lives across the street from the church, was alerted that something was wrong when her dog began barking and running to the door. The housekeeper said she heard a small explosion, looked out and saw flames coming from a window on the south side of the church. She called 911.
Forster said there had been an evening service in the church Monday, but everyone was gone when the fire was spotted.
Preliminary reports indicate the top portion of the church was destroyed while the pews and even the church missals were still in place below.
At one point Tuesday, Ss. James and John Principal Marilyn McWhorter appeared carrying the monstrance, an ornate, gold-plated vessel in which the consecrated Eucharist is displayed. It was smoke-covered but spared from the flames. She gave it to the pastor.
Chad Carter, chancellor for the diocese, told Forster it was important to salvage the sacramental registers from the church office. The registers are the recorded history of weddings, baptisms and other important events in the lives of the parishioners.
Forster believes she kept those in a fireproof cabinet, but will not know until it’s safe to enter the burned-out church.
The main altar was spared; however, the large crucifix behind it was damaged. The figure of Jesus was missing its head and an arm. A statue of St. Joseph was destroyed. A statue of Mary remains intact.
Annie said the church is self-insured through a consortium of Catholic churches.
Meanwhile, in a gesture of support, the Boggs Run Volunteer Fire Department will take donations for St. John Church during its fish fry from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at its fire hall.