Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Arsonist strikes Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Dec. 21, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Smoke poured out of the west steeple of the Cathedral when an arsonist lit a blaze in the vestibule. (IR photo)
The morning of Tuesday, Dec. 5, was routine as far as anyone at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes was concerned. Temperatures would remain below freezing all day, and as Cathedral secretary Rachel Martin glanced out the window of her first-floor office in the cathedral rectory, she could see people bundled up against the cold as they hurried by on the sidewalks outside.
At 9:40 a.m., the Cathedral’s fire alarm system bells began to ring. Martin and Deacon Chalo Martinez, who happened to be in the office at the moment, checked the video displays from security cameras but saw no reason for concern. The secretary concluded that the alarm was false. “Anyplace where there would be fire,” Martin recalled, “like around incense and candles, or the downstairs, there was nothing. The fire department showed up, which was great, but I still didn’t think there was a fire. Then someone said that they saw smoke coming out of the bell tower. Before that I had no clue.”
Bill Oakley, the cathedral’s superintendent of buildings and grounds, was driving back into Spokane from Spokane Valley when he received a call on his cell phone from Mel Garman, the Cathedral’s maintenance person. “I thought it was a false alarm,” Oakley said. “Ever since we installed the new fire alarm system, every three months or so, the wind will blow in and trigger one of the sensors in the towers and set it off. I told Mel to go and check around downstairs. I thought maybe electrical right away, or mechanical. There was a guy in the church vacuuming at the time. It’s pretty evident that whoever lit it came in that front door, and lit it, and went back out that front door.”
Whoever started the fire, Oakley said, lit a book of matches – the remains of which fire fighters found later – and tossed it into a free-standing wooden cabinet where there was a cardboard box with toys in it.
Smoke damage to the interior of the cathedral is more extensive than first reported. Although it sounds somewhat inconsequential, “smoke damage” can mean costly renovation and restoration work, to the building itself as well as its furnishings.
“We might end up painting the whole interior of the church,” Oakley said. “There was a cloud of smoke. All the pipes for the organ will have to be taken out and cleaned from smoke residue, one by one. An organ company will have to do that. The smoke was drawn from inside the church up through the heating and cooling system into the bell tower.”
From left: Father Vincent Dao, parochial vicar, and Deacon Chalo Martínez, pastoral associate of the Cathedral; Father Steve Dublinski, the Cathedral’s rector; Bishop Skylstad; and Gene DiRe, head of counseling for Catholic Charities, watch the fire department at work. (IR photo)
Oakley has some history regarding fires in the cathedral. Soon after he began work, in September of 1987, a fire occurred in electrical panels in the Cathedral’s basement kitchen. “The old lights out on the front steps had shorted out,” he recalls, “and it didn’t pop the circuit breakers, and it ended up a fire.”
Father Steve Dublinski, the Cathedral’s rector and vicar general of the diocese, watched from the sidewalk as the Spokane Fire Department quickly responded to the situation.
By the time he arrived, “smoke had already made it impossible to see in the vestibule area,” he said. “Once the hoses were brought in, the fire took about five minutes to extinguish. Some holes were punched in the wall to make sure that the fire had not spread into the building structure.”
Initially, smoke poured out of the Cathedral’s west steeple. Only the very prompt response by the fire department kept the blaze from spreading into the steeple and causing even more severe damage to the building’s structure.
The community response to the situation has been encouraging, and not just from the Catholic community.
Crestline Church of the Nazarene had recently experienced vandalism. When that community heard about the arson at the Cathedral, they took up a collection. The pastor, Dave Cox, sent a check for $195, said Father Dublinski.
“The Crestline community had responded generously in supporting them” after the damage to their church, said Father Dublinski. The Nazarene church “wanted to pass on the blessing.”
The noon Mass was canceled on Dec. 5, but other ministries have continued as always.
“The Cathedral is a home for those in search of God and for those in need,” said Father Dublinski. “The fire will not change that.”
This portrait of Bishop Skylstad was one of the items destroyed by arson Dec. 5. (IR photo from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes)