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A Church rises from the Ashes

St. Monica’s in Berwyn is close to having pledges of $1.5 million to rebuild.

by Kay Raftery, Inquirer Correspondent

Last May 22, a propane torch used for roofing accidentally ignited the wooden subroof at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Berwyn and touched off a blaze that destroyed the 102-year-old church.

Since then, the parish of 1,000 families has accumulated pledges of $1.46 million, just $36,000 short of an $1.5 million campaign to build a new church and parish center at the site.

Considering the size of the parish and the state of the economy, the fund-raising results seem remarkable.

“I would say the grace of God and the impulse of the Holy Spirit had a lot to do with it,” said the Rev. George G. Hagenbach, pastor of the church. “Also, there’s a certain sympathy for a burnt-out church.”

The roofing work that led to the blaze had been the first stage of a planned $1 million renovation of the structure.

“Originally, we had planned to just renovate the old church,” said Father Hagenbach. “Then the fire came and the decision was made for us. God permits these things to happen.”

The rectory adjoining the church was heavily damaged by smoke and water and will be torn down within the next couple of weeks. Because this is the last year that nuns will teach at St. Monica’s School, the convent will be renovated and become the rectory.

The money for that also will come from the campaign, plus what will be collected from insurance. Some money also will go to fulfill the church’s obligation to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Life 2000 fund-raising effort and aprtion will be sued to establish an educational endowment at St. Monica’s School.

For all of that, more than $3 million is needed. Father Hagenbach could not say how much the church would collect from insurance because the archdiocese is handling the claims. A lawsuit is also pending against the roofing company.

Although Father Hagenbach is the leader of the campaign, he said his success would depend on his people, in particular Joe Gallagher of Berwyn. Gallagher was recruited - with some prayerful pleading - for the campaign chairmanship.

“I was coming out of Mass one evening,” said Gallagher, “when Father George came over and said, ‘Wait a minute, Joe, I want to talk to you,’ and then he raised his eyes and his arms toward heaven and said, ‘Dear Blessed Mother, let the answer to my next question be the right one.’ Then he looked at me in the eye and said, ‘Joe, will you head up the building campaign?’ Well, how could I refuse?”

Construction for the church and parish center should start in June. Other contributions for the new buildings have come from many area Catholic churches, and Trinity Presbyterian Church, just down the road in Berwyn, had a fund-raising concert with the proceeds going to the church’s music program.

“Everyone was sad and depressed by the fire,” said Father Hagenbach, “but we will prevail and we will have a beautiful church that the community of Berwyn can be proud of.”

Philadelphia Inquirer 5/21/1992