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Blaze guts church in Berwyn

by Reid Kanaley and Joseph Davis

Parishioners stood in the smoke and wept yesterday as fire-fighters struggled to control a midday three-alarm blaze that gutted the landmark, 102-year-old St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Berwyn.

One firefighter was injured, and the damage was estimated at between $3 million and $4 million.

“We’ll rebuild this church,” said a tearful Charlie Card, 58, a member for more than 35 years. This is a community church and nothing’s going to destroy that community.

Witnesses said the fire began when workers using a propane torch to lay down roofing material accidentally ignited the wooden subroof just after 11 a.m.

Flames raged through the massive frame, stone and stucco structure, sending into the air a plume of smoke that was visible for miles. St. Monica’s sits atop a hill in a Main Line neighborhood of modest homes just south of the Berwyn station of the Paoli Local.

The 200 students in the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade parish school, which sits just yards from the church building, were evacuated to a nearby playground. Classes were canceled for today.

Berwyn firefighter David Johnson, 19, sustained a slight head injury when a burning timber struck him on the back of the neck, authorities said. He was treated at Paoli Memorial Hospital and released.

Berwyn Fire Chief Francis Pitts said firefighters saved the adjoining church rectory with a deluge of water.

“They held it at the doorway,” he said.

Flames still sputtered from the edges of the collasped church roof when Pitts declared the fire under control nearly two hours later, at 12:51 p.m.

The re-roofing had been under way for about two weeks, said Bill Kruger, the church maintenance man. He said one of the roofers from Nelson Roofing & Siding Co. of Malvern notified him when the blaze started.

“The guy came down and told me that the wood caught fire,’ Kruger said. He said he ran into the church office and asked the secretary, Eleanor Tony, to call the fire department.

Nelson officials could not be reached for comment. The offical cause of the fire remained under investigation by state and Chester County fire marshals yesterday.

The roofing was the first part of what was to have been a $1 million renovation of the church, said the Rev. Thomas Gillin, assistant pastor of the 1,000-family parish. The building was to have been closed for eight months, starting January.

“It was scary for everybody”, said Sean Sullivan, 12, describing the student’s reaction to the foul burning smell that wafter through his math class at St. Monica’s School and the announcement over the loudspeakers by the principle, Sister Maurice Hickey, for them to clear the building.

Mass will be said today in a small auditorium of the old schoolhouse, Father Gillin said.

St. Monica’s was started as a mission church and became a parish with its own priest in 1897, Father Gillin said. Excavation began in 1889 and the building was completed in 1893, according to church records.

Father Gillin predicted a quick rebuilding.

“This is a community of people, not just buildings”, he said as the sheet metal of St. Monica’s steeple collasped into the ruined belfry.

“It’s a great community of faith, and they’ll rebound and build an even greater parish,” he said.

Inquirer correspondent Kay Raftery contributed to this article.

Philadelphia Inquirer 5/23/1991