Extra alarm fire on North Side

CHICAGO The Saint Hedwig Church, located in the 2200-block of North Hoyne, did not undergo serious structural damage, officials said. No one was injured.

The blaze began in the basement of the church and spread within the walls of the building. Smoke continued to come from the building, but the fire was extinguished after an hour-and-a-half firefight.

The 120-year-old Roman Catholic Church caught fire around 2:15 p.m. Firefighters followed smoke from the rectory through a tunnel to the church and into the basement.

Firefighters were praised for controlling the blaze inthe wood-frame building and saving the structure.

"They went into the church basement and had a hard time finding the tunnel that goes under the altar. Finally, we found the tunnel under the altar and crawled 40 feet until we found the fire. And now as you well know, there aren't too many churches that have been saved in the city, especially with a fire of this magnitude," said Dan Gillespie, Chicago Fire Dept.

Federal, state and city investigators were meeting to discuss the situation. All of them are involved in this case because this fire involves a house of worship. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said a dog that could sniff out accelerants was combing the scene. And they're also bringing in an electrical engineer to check out the wiring.

In the meantime, the church has already canceled masses for Wednesday and Thursday.

The fire did burn a hole that's about four feet wide and 15 feet long in front of the altar.

"It is really heartbreaking because knowing it's been damaged like that, they're going to have repairs and with that comes change," said Michele Begovich, parishioner.

"We're here every Sunday and seeing it in its pristine shape from the artisans that built it, 100 years ago, hopefully we'll be able to bring some of that back," said Ald Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward.

"We took a very hard beating getting to the fire. Like I said, I then came out of the basement and crawled in through the front of the church to the altar. I told the guys that were with me when we get to the altar you can say a prayer but until then we got to find the fire," said Gillespie.

"It's a dirt floor, except now, there's about three feet of water in there that was the result of trying to extinguish the fire," said Tom Ahern, ATF agent.

The church's business manager said that this church has some historical significance as well. Back in 1894, there was a huge schism. That's when some of the members of the church left. They lost about two-thirds of their parish at that point. Over the years, the numbers continue to grow. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, there were about 20,000 members of the church. Right now, that number hovers around 1,800.
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