Hundreds of parishioners from St. Patrick Parish in Hubbard stood outside their beloved place of worship as thick clouds of smoke plumed against an already-darkened winter sky, burning the eyes and stinging the nostrils. The parishioners watched as firefighters, in their bright yellow suits, crawled over the exterior of the building, doing everything they could to save the church.
This was the scene on January 18, 2021, when emergency services were called to the parish at approximately 5:45 p.m. Thankfully, no one was harmed that evening, and the firefighters were able to preserve much of the building.
Even still, the damage was devastating. It would take years, millions of dollars and countless man-hours before the church would be usable again. Although arson was ruled out, the exact cause of the fire was never determined.
But far from being overcome at the sight of their church burning, the parishioners instead turned their attention to supporting the firefighters, some of whom were fellow parishioners.
“It was hard to believe what was happening, that it was actually happening here,” said Father Mike Swierz, pastor. “Even though we were torn apart by what was happening, the parishioners’ concern shifted to the men and women who were fighting the fire. They went down to a parishioner [-owned] supermarket down here and got bottled water and donuts.”
Father Swierz said that when he arrived at the church, he attempted to go inside to save the Eucharist, stored in the tabernacle behind the altar, but the smoke was already so thick that he was unable to move forward.
“In a way, it was like God put His hand down so I couldn’t go any further,” he said. “The sanctuary floor fell in, so I would have fallen in it, where the tabernacle was. Minutes later the firemen came in and put a ladder over the hole and took the tabernacle out.
“When these bad things happen to us, it’s nothing that we did or because God’s angry—I think it shows how much God loves us, that he’s going to walk with us when we go through something like this,” Father Swierz continued.
“We took that hurt and changed it into a positive energy. You can’t sit there and say ‘poor me’ … that’s the perfect opportunity to run with that and to make a difference. In [the parishioners’] lives, they’ll always remember this and grow from it—and they did, they have.”
While the fire at St. Patrick Parish was perhaps the largest, there have been several other fires in Diocese of Youngstown churches in recent years—not to mention the destruction of St. Columba Cathedral in the 1950s.
But, as we so often discover when looking back on our lives, the blessings of God can come out of the darkest moments.
Another fire in recent memory struck St. Mary Church in Massillon—now Divine Mercy Parish—on August 4, 2015. This church is one of the oldest in the diocese and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Apart from being a very old and beautiful church, St. Mary is also significant because of its shrine to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of nervous disorders and mental illnesses. The shrine receives visitors year-round.
The fire caused significant damage to the area around the shrine to St. Dymphna, as well as considerable smoke damage to the ceiling. The church underwent repairs for over a year, before eventually opening in time for Christmas in 2016. The damage was bad, but it could have been much worse.
“The fire department said that really we were probably within a half-hour of the building being in jeopardy,” said Ken Mclaughlin, a member of parish council.
The fire, while tragic, inspired acts of love and Christian brotherhood. While St. Mary’s was under repair, Reverend David Saylor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church offered the use of their church to the parishioners of St. Mary. “It was difficult,” McLaughlin said about parishioners’ emotions that day. “The fire hadn’t even been put out yet and [St. Paul’s was] already offering our priest the availability of their church, which gave us an instant place to continue our worship. They opened their doors to us, even changed their Mass schedule so that they could accommodate us. It gave everyone renewed optimism to our Christian brethren.”
In an interview with the The Catholic Exponent, Father Ed Gretchko, pastor of St. Mary’s at the time, called the generosity of St. Paul’s a “true blessing in a time of true sorrow.”
There were other silver linings as well.
“It highlighted the understanding that we are a faith community,” McLaughlin said. “The church is beautiful and it evangelizes in and of itself, but in the end, it is a building. We continued on in our faith life—not in our building but in another building. We unified over that process.”
The fire also allowed for much-needed repairs to be done to the church, such as fresh paint on the interior, an expansion of the church’s narthex, the addition of arches over statues of St. Mary and St. Joseph and new statuary in the shrine area. The church even found old stained-glass elements that had been covered up by wood panelling.
But best of all was that the fire and repairs actually brought people back to the church. In fact, he said, one of the firefighters who responded to the fire ended up going through RCIA and became Catholic—he was confirmed at Divine Mercy Parish’s Easter Vigil last year.
“[The fire] encouraged people to come back to Mass,” McLaughlin said. “When you’re about ready to lose something you’ve taken for granted, you have a different look at it after it’s saved.”
On December 13, 2020, St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Boardman also experienced a fire—its pavilion was destroyed through what was later discovered to be arson. Someone living near the pavilion called emergency services at around 5:30 a.m., but when firefighters arrived, the pavilion was totally engulfed in flames and could not be saved. While the church did have security footage, no one was ever arrested for the crime.
“When people discovered it burnt down, many were upset that it happened,” said Erica Galvin, director of communications for St. Charles. “Some parishioners joked that it was just another bad thing to add to 2020. However, no matter their initial thoughts, everyone agreed we would rebuild it. It was just a question of where and when.”
Ironically, due to the destruction caused by the fire, more attention was on the pavilion than ever before. The parish was in a position to rethink the pavilion’s location and construction in order to make it more accessible and useful to the whole community. Before the fire, the pavilion was not used for much beyond an annual outdoor Mass.
Upon receiving an insurance payout, the parish immediately began efforts to rebuild the pavilion in a more central location, closer to the parish’s school. The parish also decided to add restrooms to the building, as well as a basketball court and a playground for the school. The insurance money paid for the bulk of the repairs and new construction, but the parish also invested more money to expand the utility of the location.
“Many saw the destruction of the pavilion as an opportunity to create something even better,” Galvin continued. “After all, we have to have a death in order to have a resurrection, and the new pavilion will provide so many new opportunities and memories for the school students and parishioners alike for decades to come.”
Almost exactly a year after the St. Charles pavilion fire, Blessed Sacrament Parish in Warren narrowly avoided a disaster the morning of December 12, 2021. A passerby noticed flames inside the church and quickly called 911. Unlike the fire at St. Charles, however, the fire at Blessed Sacrament was determined to be an accident, caused by an errant burning candle.
Thankfully, the fire barely spread by the time firefighters arrived on the scene. The damage was almost entirely contained to the platform around the ambo, although there was also smoke damage to the roof of the church, and the religious texts stored in the ambo were destroyed.
Despite the damage, parishioners were overjoyed that the church was not destroyed. Some parishioners said that it was a “Christmas miracle” that the church was still intact.
The restoration of the church involved replacing the charred area, cleaning and painting the entire interior—including the 60-foot tower—cleaning the organ, replacing acoustical panels and thoroughly cleaning everything in the building. The church was closed during repairs, so parishioners attended the nearby parishes in Warren while their space was being restored.
The church reopened on by Easter 2022, with a Mass celebrated by Bishop David Bonnar. Now, if you stand on the circular platform underneath the ambo, which is in the center of the church, you would be hard-pressed to find where the repairs were made—it’s as if the fire never happened.
“Life has its twists and turns, its victories and defeats, its joys and sorrows—and its accidents,” said Bishop Bonnar. “Accidents happen and we, living in this story, are often caught up in the midst of this reality. When we look at these fires, there’s always more to the story than just the fire and devastation … I think it’s a story of faith and resiliency.”
Bishop Bonnar noted that the fire at St. Patrick Parish was actually the first major event—good or bad—to happened in the diocese after he was ordained the new Bishop of Youngstown. Nevertheless, he was amazed at the efforts of Father Swierz and the firefighters to recover the Eucharist from the flames, as well as the parishioners who came to support the firefighters that night. But most of all, he has been overjoyed at the way parish life at St. Patrick has continued. He said, “What clearly [was] a terrible obstacle has become a beautiful opportunity for the faithful of Hubbard to grow in their faith and to take an even deeper ownership of their church building.”
Nearly three years after the fire, St. Patrick Parish is making final repairs. Father Swierz hopes that the church will reopen sometime next month, barring any delays, and he believes the space will be “better than ever,” as they’ve made several improvements along with the repairs. The organ and the kitchen area in the basement received upgrades, the sacristy was expanded, and a confessional room was added—all to better suit the parish’s needs.
The church isn’t the only thing to emerge strengthened on the other side of this disaster, Father Swierz said.
“It’s our day of resurrection now,” he said. “We’ve been in the tomb, but now we’re back to life. I don’t think it destroyed [parishioners’] faith—I think it increased it a lot. Even those with faith the size of a mustard seed.”
“There’s always going to be the question ‘Why? Why did this happen?’” Bishop Bonnar added. “The temptation is to become locked into that question. There [are] some things we will never know the answer for in this life, but I think what matters most in situations like this is how we respond … that really needs to be the focal point. The only way to respond to the ‘why’ is to move forward to the best of our ability.”