The roof and steeple of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church was consumed by flames. (Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

Petersburg’s Catholic Church, St. Catherine of Siena, caught fire yesterday afternoon in a blaze that continued for nearly ten hours. KFSK’s Thomas Copeland has the story.

Don Koenigs has attended St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church for over 40 years. He was one of just two parishioners at midday Mass on Thursday. 

“I saw smoke while I was inside from the skylight in the church,” said Koenigs. “We were just ready to receive Holy Communion. I looked up and I saw smoke billowing up above, so I ran out of the church immediately and could see that the church was on fire. I ran into told Father, and I said, ‘You have to take Jesus all the tabernacle.’ When we came out, I called 9-11.”

A volunteer firefighter hands off a pair of crosses recovered from the burn to Father Jose. (Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

At 12:29, emergency dispatch received multiple calls as neighbors and passers-by caught sight of the flames. Fire, EMS, Search and Rescue, and Law Enforcement were on the scene within minutes. As the firefighters tackled the blaze, smoke billowed from St. Catherine’s down into Petersburg. Sergeant Drew Ayriss said police officers quickly cordoned off several streets.

“The smoke was heading in a southwesterly direction,” said Ayriss. “So we evacuated everybody in the nearby houses. We also evacuated the Children’s Center because it was there [were] actually children in the school.”

At Petersburg Medical Center, CEO Phil Hofstetter saw the smoke as it blew down the hill to  the clinic.

“It was almost like it was porous,” said Hofstetter. “It went right through the building.”

And that meant scores of appointments were quickly canceled.

Petersburg Medical Center was inundated with smoke for several hours. (Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

“We closed all non essential services and we sent staff home,” said Hofstetter. “We put some air scrubbers into the different units for long term care.”

Back at St. Catherine’s, crowds gathered as the church roof began to cave in and its spire buckled under the heat of the flames. 

“[It’s] bringing tears to my eyes,” said Jim Litsheim. “I’m just shocked.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Becky Knight. “I’ve lived here for 48 years, and I don’t know — there’s been fires in town, but this is pretty terrible.”

“I’m sad for the community,” said Ed Tagaban. “It’s gonna be tough on all the parishioners there and stuff so they’re gonna go through they’re gonna need a lot of community support a lot of help.”

Among the onlookers stood Father Jose. This is his first year at St. Catherine’s.

“It’s so heartbreaking,” said Jose. “So heartbreaking. But we will survive. That’s our hope. And I want to thank all the fire department works they are working hard to control this fire.”

Three fire engines and dozens of emergency personnel responded to the fire. (Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

As the first hour rolled on, more volunteers arrived on the scene. Some, like Taylor Norheim, even raced in from the water to fight the fire.

“I got here late, even,” said Norheim. “I was out on the boat, [but] I had to go. I cancelled work for the day, because, I don’t know — somebody’s got to do it. But I mean, the building’s a loss that really sucks. My parents got married in there a long time ago. “

The Petersburg Fire Department has to rely on volunteers, many with full-time jobs like Norheim. Fire Department spokesperson Dave Berg said that means when a massive blaze like this occurs — the worst he’s seen in a quarter century — they can find themselves with just a skeleton crew. 

“We showed up with with three engines,” said Berg. “One engine came in with only a driver. So there was no one no, no staff. I mean, it’s capable of carrying six us a crew of six. Another engine came in short staffed also.”

“Do you think he could have saved us more of the church if you had more volunteers?” asked KFSK’s Thomas Copeland.

“Oh, I think so,” answered Berg. “Our volunteer staff has been declining over the years is just, you know — people don’t seem to be as interested in in either fire service or volunteering as a whole. Which has really put a damper on what we can do as far as interior attack on some structures. And so, at some point, you have to become defensive and go into a defensive mode — kind of like we’re in right now.”

Aaron Hankins, the director of Fire and EMS, said in a race against time, fewer volunteers can have a massive impact. 

“Would you have done this operation differently, if you’d had more volunteers?” asked Copeland.

“We might have been able to get up on the roof before the whole entire thing was compromised,” answered Berg. “But by the time we got access and had enough volunteers to do it. You know, it was kind of not really safe to go on there.”

As the afternoon turned to evening, the flames died down, but refused to die out. Four inch-thick wooden beams, tightly layered on the roof of the sanctuary, blocked the hoses from extinguishing the flames smoldering underneath. And the attic of the fellowship was just as hard to access. So the chainsaws came out to carve up chunks of timber to allow for  a way for the water to get in. 

The fire crew had to cut through thick layers of wood for their hoses to reach the flames.
(Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

Across a parking lot in the Parks and Recreation gymnasium, the congregation of St. Catherine’s gathered for communion, prayer and to plan for the days ahead. Father Jose was living at the back of the church before it burned down. But in a brief moment of levity, he told the parishioners he had just brought home some groceries. 

“I was about to cook today — I’d just bought some pork,” said Jose. “It’s maybe roasted now with the fire.”

The congregation hopes to assemble for Mass this weekend in the grotto next to the burnt-out church, but they don’t yet know what can be salvaged from inside. As the parishioners left the gymnasium, they stopped to watch the firefighters still battling the stubborn flames burning in the church roof. Dave Berg says the outlook for the building isn’t good.

“Well, the sanctuary was spared,” said Berg. “There’s heavy smoke damage in their very little fire. But as far as the rectory is concerned — and especially the the Fellowship Hall and the kitchen area — it’s pretty much destroyed. I really think that all in all, we’re probably going to have a total loss with the building.”

It was past 10 p.m. when the final hose was turned off. There was just one injury amongst the multi-agency army of Petersburg volunteers, a broken finger in the fire crew. 

The cause of the blaze will be investigated in the days and weeks to come by local and state Fire Marshalls. But for now, St Catherine’s of Siena is reduced to a shell.

The church steeple buckled from the heat of the flames. (Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)