I was alone as I approached. Where I stopped there were what looked like the remains of a campfire near my foot on the sidewalk. First, there was just me. Then another woman, then a third woman and her two dogs, then a fourth woman. We stood and tried to come up with new adjectives to describe how we felt. Devastated was the consensus word.
Before us was the front wall with its steep pitched point topped with an ironwork cross. Above the patterned bricks was the rose window. Or where the rose window should have been. Yet we were held back by yellow Police Line tape.
When a historic church burns in America, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is called in to investigate. The vehicles were visible between two other buildings. A lone police officer sat in his cruiser watching us.
We stood silent taking in the unimaginable. The slate shingles still covered bits of the roof. But over 80% of the roof was gone. Replaced with the skeleton of blackened rafters.
Journalists somehow manage to accurately and vividly describe the aftermath of such a fire. But like a surgeon who won't operate on a family member, it's difficult to put words to the emotions that welled up in my chest and brought tears to my eyes.
The doors were always unlocked. Finola would walk to the chapel after school to practice on the beautiful pipe organ. For organ aficionados, it was a tracker. Even worse, it was a Fisk.
As I stood looking in complete dejection, I wracked my brain trying to remember whether the Pascal Candle was always lit whenever I would pick up Finola after practice. Maybe the chapel had knob-and-tube wiring that finally gave out. The thought of someone carelessly tossing a cigarette or match or anything into a plastic trash can crossed my mind but I couldn't entertain the thought without a sick feeling coming over me.
Many were the days that I'd sit in a quire stall listening to the last practice piece as the cleaning ladies polished the pews with oil until the wood glistened. I'd read the inscriptions below the stained glass. Or the exhortation above the altar. "Go ye into the world and preach the gospel."
A church is gone. The church will survive. A church is a building. The church is the people. The church community is strong, with deep roots and branches that stretch around the world. Graduates have gone into all corners of the world. The Good News is that no one was hurt.
The Good News is that even a horrible fire of a beloved chapel cannot extinguish our hope and our love and our communtiy. Even in ashes, the chapel brought together four strangers on a beautiful fall day.