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St. Anthony's Church fire was a close call

Building will be closed for months

Saturday, March 8, 2014
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Ray Legere of Legere Restoration stands in the sanctuary of St. Anthony's Church on Seward Street Saturday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Ray Legere of Legere Restoration stands in the sanctuary of St. Anthony's Church on Seward Street Saturday.

— It will be months before St. Anthony’s Church can be restored from damage it sustained in Friday night’s fire — and it could have been a lot worse than that.

Ray Legere, a co-owner of Legere Restorations who was inspecting damage at the church on Saturday, said the red-bricked landmark could have been minutes away from sustaining major structural damage — or worse.

Flames were about 10 feet high in the sanctuary, but never reached the ceiling of the 115-year-old church at Nott Street and Seward Place, he said. If the fire had raged for another 10 minutes, Legere guessed his restoration job would be a whole different story.

“If those flames got a hold of these wooden rafters …,” he said, looking up and trailing off. “As soon as they get the roof, you’re done.”

Legere and his cousin/co-owner, Jeff Legere, measured the extent of the damage Saturday at the church. The consensus was that things looked worse than they actually were — but significant work still is needed.

The blaze began at the furnace, causing the most damage to the basement ceiling and the wooden floors of the sanctuary directly above the furnace room.

“Structurally, this won’t be a challenge,” said Ray Legere, pointing out the stone hidden beneath faux-wood and other paneling at the church where his company has been doing minor repairs for at least 15 years.

“There is some minor structural damage to the floors, but most of this is going to be cosmetic and finishes. We can clean and deodorize the place, said Legere, whose firm’s main line of work is restoring structures after wind, water and fire and disasters.

“The problem is deciding what direction to head in as a parish,” he said.

The Rev. Richard Carlino, pastor of the church, said St. Anthony’s has insurance, but it’s unclear how much of the damage will be covered.

Carlino is anxious to begin restoration right away, but must first hold an emergency meeting with trustees on the church’s Finance Committee.

“We’re hoping to fully restore the church,” Carlino said. “The priority is obviously the furnace and the water damage and the smoke damage.”

If Legere gets the go-ahead for a full restoration, the church could be back open in six months, he said.

In the meantime, St. Anthony’s will hold services at St. John the Evangelist Church on the other side of the Union College campus. The two parishes are linked, meaning they share the same pastor and clergy who oversee services such as baptisms, marriages and Eucharist.

Meanwhile, an early challenge will be to clean things up in the disarrayed church.

More than 30 firefighters battled the blaze Friday night, cutting a hole in the sanctuary floor to get to the point of origin. They also had to break a few stained-glass windows to improve visibility and to vent the sanctuary of thick smoke.

The firefighters’ moves were not made lightly, Carlino said.

“They kept apologizing to me each time they smashed through a stained glass window,” he recalled Saturday. “I understood, of course. I can’t say enough good things about those firefighters, and everyone really. It’s been a tremendous outpouring of support.”

A waterlogged, soot-covered Bible sat open Saturday on a wooden bench next to the altar. The maroon carpeting in the nave was soggy and rippled against rows of wooden pews. The floor was covered with ash, pieces of the ceiling and walls that had peeled off from the heat, brass items from the sacristy and a piece of yellow “do not cross” tape. Soot blackened the vaulted ceiling directly above the altar.

Muted daylight filtered through the old stained-glass windows that line the nave and sanctuary. They were previously restored in the early ’90s, Carlino said. Two of them were boarded up Saturday about a third of the way up. Another window was destroyed entirely. Another was broken in just a few places.

An old fresco near the altar sustained enough heat damage to leave only a blackened, bubbling canvas and the bottom half of a robed man holding a knife.

Some of the smaller details that made St. Anthony’s beautiful — like the stenciling on the ceiling and the broken stained-glass windows — he also hopes to have restored.

“There was a picture of God the Father attended by the Son and Holy Spirit over the apex of the high altar,” Carlino said. “That’s destroyed.”

 
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