By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
EDINA, Mo. -- Larry Clark has no doubt that divine intervention saved St. Joseph Church building from being lost in a fire that broke out Aug. 15.
He is equally certain it will take God's help and a unified community effort to make needed repairs on the 140-year-old structure that dominates the city skyline.
"It's a wonder it didn't all burn down," Clark said.
Clark was interior restoration supervisor at St. Joseph when it went through a major facelift in 2008 and 2009. He knows the church building well enough that three fire marshals asked him to accompany them on an inspection of the structure soon after the fire. Investigators looked at possible ignition sources in a storage room on the second floor in the southwest corner of the building. They could not find a cause and ruled the fire was of "undetermined origin."
That has not kept the insurance company or the policy reinsurers from continuing their investigation.
"They want to know what caused the fire. I would like to know that myself," Clark said.
At about 2 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 15, a report of smoke and fire was phoned in. Multiple calls were made, and there's some debate about just who made the first call. Edina firefighters responded and immediately sought mutual aid from other fire departments. It proved a wise choice.
"All the volunteers in Knox County and into Lewis County came to our aid," Clark said. "The Kirksville Fire Department brought in a ladder truck that let them spray water in from a window that is 80 feet high on top of the peak at the west end of the building. Being able to get above the fire let them get control of it."
Investigators say the evidence indicates the fire in the storeroom reached temperatures in excess of 1,200 degrees. It was prevented from spreading more quickly by heavy plaster walls and a statue of St. Mary on the other side of a wall, which helped block radiant heat.
"So many things happened that kept the fire from breaking into the main body of the church," Clark said.
At one point, the Edina fire chief thought the dome might come down, and he gave emergency crews five minutes to rescue whatever they could from the sanctuary. When they opened the doors, a flood of volunteers from all over the community carried out everything that wasn't nailed down on the main floor. They couldn't get into the choir loft because there was too much smoke.
After the fire was extinguished, the smoke and water damage remained. A cleaning company has dehumidifiers running to help dry out what they can. Wyler Woodworking, a local company that did work on the pews during the earlier restoration project has been given the go-ahead to start refinishing the pews again. As they finish cleaning and varnishing pews, they have been placed in the old Dollar General store until the rest of the St. Joseph building has been cleaned.
Larry Hayes, chairman of the exterior restoration committee, said a tuckpointing project has been put on hold until the insurance company finishes its work and the church leadership knows how it will proceed. Hayes has no doubt the building will continue to serve the Catholic parish in Knox County.
"We're pretty proud of that old building," Hayes said.
Clark that's not just the opinion of the St. Joseph congregation.
"This isn't just a church to the Catholic community. It's a treasure to the entire community," Clark said.
Help from the larger community may be needed to meet the repair needs. St. Joseph parish had spent $408,814 on repairs and improvements in the past year, according to information in a recent Sunday bulletin.
So far nobody knows how much it will cost to fix the damage caused by the fire.
"The superstructure is in good shape. The main beams of the church (building) are reusable. We know we're going to have to replace the floor joists and studs on the first, second and third floors on the southwest corner," Clark said.
Deacon Ken Berry said mass has been moved to the Knights of Columbus Hall a couple of blocks to the north of St. Joseph. That will continue in the short term.
"Different churches have been offering their assistance. People are concerned whether we are doing all right," Berry said.
He knows the St. Joseph building will be restored. It's just going to take time, and work.
Clark understands the importance of time and timing.
"It this fire had broken out at 2 a.m. instead of 2 p.m., we would have lost the building," Clark said.