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Faithful in the US mourn loss of landmark church destroyed by fire

St John Church in Benwood, West Virginia (Photo: CNS)

Parishioners in Benwood, West Virginia, are mourning the loss of a landmark church they regarded as the “heart of the city”.

A fire tore though St John Church on Monday evening during Holy Week.

Fire officials said the fire started just before 9pm and took only a few minutes to fully engulf the church. They said they believed the fire started near the high altar and quickly spread toward the front doors with the bell tower acting as a chimney – allowing the fire to spread more quickly.

No one was injured in the blaze, and firefighters were on the scene early the next morning to begin investigating the cause. No cause has yet been determined.

Parish priest Fr Bekeh Utietiang, who was in the rectory attached to the church, said he had no idea that a fire had broken out.

“I was in the kitchen when I heard the doorbell ring. I said to myself, ‘Who’s ringing the doorbell this late?’ It was a neighbour to tell me the building was on fire. When I came out, I could just see the huge flames.”

Fr Utietiang, who was able to get out safely, said a gathering had taken place at the church just a few short hours before the fire.

A landmark in the city of Benwood, St John has stood for more than 124 years, a testament to the Catholic community in the small town just south of Wheeling. “This building is very much the heart of the city,” he said.

Tifany Giavengo, who lives round the corner from the church, was at home when the fire started. She is a parishioner and administrative assistant at Ss James and John school, which is attached to the church and sustained some damage.

“The curfew whistle that rings every night at 9pm went off,” she said, “so I didn’t think anything of it. A few minutes later, somebody called me and said the church was on fire. So we walked down the street and you could just see the flames shooting out. By the time we walked down the street, the whole roof was engulfed.”

Giavengo said she has made many memories in the church. “I was baptised here, I was married here,” she said. “My children were baptised here. It’s very emotional, but Benwood is an extremely strong community. Our parishioners are very strong and we will pull through it.”

Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston travelled to the scene to be with parishioners and those gathered to join them in prayer and support.

“During this holiest of weeks on the Christian calendar, we are terribly saddened by the news of a devastating fire at St John Church,” he said in a statement issued when news of the fire broke.

“I join the Benwood community at this hour in prayer, and we thank the brave firefighters and first responders who are working so hard to battle [it],” he said, adding he was relieved to hear that Fr Utietiang, though “very shaken”, had made it out of the structure unharmed.

St John’s parishioners went to nearby St James Church in McMechen for Holy Week and Easter Masses.

Classes were cancelled at the school on March 31 and April 1; the school was scheduled to re-open after the spring holiday on April 13.

A structural inspection has been carried out on the church and adjacent buildings but the results will not be known for at least a week.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston has set up two funds – the St John Parish Fire Relief Fund and the Ss James and John School Fire Relief Fund – to meet the greatest needs of the church and school, including costs of re-establishing operations and purchasing educational resources for the school and liturgical materials for the parish. Funds also will be used to pay for any items that might not be covered by insurance.