Rising from the ashes: Melrose marks one year since church fire

It’s hard for Carl and Briana Worms to believe it’s been a whole year since their beloved parish of St. Mary’s in Melrose suffered a devastating fire that destroyed most of the interior of the church’s worship space. Carl, who serves on the Melrose Fire Department, vividly remembers getting the call late in the afternoon of March 11, 2016.

While he rushed to the scene, Briana, who is part of an auxiliary that plans meals and support when there are large fires, also was called to the church to help.

“We anticipated it was going to go all night,” Briana said. “We just started to do what we normally do — figure out what to do about supper and supplies.”

Immediately, the community came forward with what was needed. In the hours and days that followed, those needs included prayers and support for one another.

“The community really had a sense of ‘community.’ You knew everybody was feeling the same way — sad about the tragedy, yet trying to be hopeful for what was to come,” Briana said.

For weeks, it was all the Worms talked about at home, and everywhere they went, it was a main topic of conversation.

In May, investigators determined that the fire was an act of arson, which fueled tensions in the community. As emotions escalated, the Worms noticed the tone of the dialogue started to change.

“When people don’t know what’s going to happen, there is fear,” Carl said.

Briana and Carl Worms look at photographs of their wedding day which they celebrated in 2006 at St. Mary Church in Melrose. Last year, a fire heavily damaged the interior of the worship space. (Photo by Kristi Anderson/The Visitor)

While no decisions have been made on whether the church will be restored, renovated or a new campus built, it was clear that people had differences of opinion on what should be done.

Despite the church leadership’s efforts to keep the community informed throughout the process, rumors caused rifts between friends and families.

To combat speculation, parish leadership held community meetings with the architects, builders and other consultants and tried to keep on top of communication with the parishioners through their website and parish bulletin.

By June, the parish council formed a steering committee to help gather information, work with the insurance company and general contractors and report their findings. In December, the steering committee finished their research and submitted it to the parish council.

As a physician who has lived and worked in Melrose for nearly 20 years, Dr. Kurt Schwieters understands that the process of healing is not always fast, and it is rarely easy.

“Our parish has faced some primary challenges since the fire,” said Schwieters, who serves on the parish council. “We have experienced great loss. Our beautiful church has been very important to our community, worship and identity since 1898. We have struggled with grief, loss and division. Doubt and fear were growing and there was lack of trust in information and the process.”

He was concerned about the reactions of some people with whom he’d had relationships for years. He was seeking understanding and, in turn, hoped he could help to remedy hurts the community was feeling.

Schwieters visited members of the parish in their homes or places of business to hear their concerns, which he said, was helpful both to them and to him and the council.

“As we talked, we identified key points of frustration, fear or lack of confidence,” he said. “These were discussed and brought back to the parish council.”
Schwieters said that, as with most trauma and loss, not all people recover at the same speed.

“This can be frustrating, but I am hopeful that people now better understand our challenges, limitations and efforts,” he said. “We have discussed as a council how to best interact with parishioners who are in pain, angry or frustrated … while being honest and open with the information we have at that moment.”

Taking time to talk, listen

Jim and Ivanna Meyer have been part of the Melrose community for decades —  Jim is a financial planner and Ivanna is a retired school teacher.

When the fire occurred, the Meyers said their emotions were a mix of sadness and “the matter-of-fact thought that there was a fire and now we’ll have to deal with it.”

Because he knew some fellow parishioners were experiencing a different level of emotions, Jim valued the opportunities he had to dialogue with them and hear the different viewpoints.

“One of the questions we talked about in small groups was ‘wants versus needs,’” he said. “For a lot of people, many said keeping the church building was a need for them. For me, having a worship space is a need and the type of building is more of a want, so it was interesting to hear.

“Taking the time to talk to other parishioners is good, whether you agree or not,” Jim said. “It is important to be able to listen to each other. Even if you disagree, it is an opportunity to remind each other that we’re all still a part of the community. I hope that whatever option is finally decided on that it provides positive energy for parishioners to be more active witnesses for Jesus.”

Moving forward

Immediately following the fire, arrangements were made to celebrate Mass at the neighboring parish in Meire Grove. Some chose to attend other nearby churches. After Christmas, St. Mary’s decided to move the Masses to their school gym.

“It was wonderful that Meire Grove allowed us to come there for Mass,” Briana said. “Still, it was difficult that we didn’t see the whole parish coming together. Coming back to the school, it has been nice seeing those familiar faces again.”

The Worms also noticed a change in the interaction with the Hispanic/Latino community.

“We’re all going through this journey together. It’s just as much their church as our church. Out of the tragedy we’re now coming together even more,” Briana said.
On Feb. 23, the parish council presented a proposal for the restoration of the church to the Diocesan Building Commission.

“We are awaiting their decision and/or recommendations,” Schwieters said. “As soon as possible, we will present this information to our parish in a format that would be informative and promote unity and growth. We hope this process leads to good decisions to make our parish strong and be able to work together.”

Schwieters likens the past year to the time Jesus spent in the desert.

“We are thirsty. We are hungry. We are in the desert. We are searching,” he said. “We are praying for wisdom, clarity and understanding. We are listening.”
Similarly, the Worms see people growing weary but are encouraged by the changes they’ve seen.

“People’s opinions might not have changed, but how they’re approaching it has changed a little bit. People might have felt one way, but now they might say something like, ‘I still want the church restored but I can understand why you might want a new church,’” Carl said.

“In our hearts, we all know that the church is never going to be 100 percent what it was,” Briana added. “I just hope that no matter what happens, people can walk into the new space, whatever shape that takes, and accept what it is. It’s a journey we are going through together. Not everything is going to be easy but my hope is that the outcome will be that our community and our faith will be all that much stronger because of it.”

A prayer service is planned for March 11, the actual anniversary of the fire, at 4:30 p.m. Participants are asked to gather outside the church building and will process into the school gym to honor the exact time, 4:43 p.m., when the fire department was dispatched, prior to the 5 p.m. Mass.

About Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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