Holy Name survives fire thanks to firefighters

Cardinal: Cathedral full of water; plans to restore, not rebuild
February 4, 2009 (CHICAGO) The extra-alarm fire was contained around 8:45 a.m. but the attic of the iconic church is severely damaged.

Firefighters were on the scene at Holy Name Cathedral on Wednesday night. The 134-year-old structure remains standing and inside the damage is minimal. A lot of water poured into the sanctuary damaging several of the columns and soaking the cardinal's hats called galeros that hang from the rafters.

"We just had a meeting here last night and we walked out and everything was fine and then this morning I turn on the television and they talked about fire in the roof and i couldn't believe it," said Rob King, Holy Name Young Adult Board member.

Father Matt Compton awoke at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning to the sound of sirens. He went door to door through the rectory to help evacuate. And then when it was safe he and the fire department chaplain removed the Blessed Sacraments from the altar.

"Without that there's no catholic church," said Fr. Matt Compton, Holy Name Cathedral.

Flames were shooting from the roof when firefighters arrived quickly from the station down the street. Their challenge was to get a 500 hose into the smoke-filled attic up a narrow ladder... And over a catwalk with loose wooden planks.

"It's totally different environment from what you're seeing like in the movies or something, just totally different," said John Martinez, Chicago Fire Dept.

Francis Cardinal George says the roof will likely have to be rebuilt. But considering the seriousness of the fire he is thankful the damage is not worse.

"Chicago has always bounced back from fires so i think that we'll bounce back from this," said Cardinal Francis George, Chicago Archdiocese.

It is going to be a trying time for parishioners who were moved to an auditorium for several months for major repairs in the sanctuary last year.

"I'm also concerned for the Parish community," said Moses Spencer. Where are we supposed to worship?"

Fire department officials are not ready to say what the cause of the fire was. Some ideas include work that was going on or an electrical problem.

Severe damage to cathedral attic

It was a worker - part of the renovation project at Holy Name - who first discovered the fire. It didn't take long for the flames to grow feeding on the old, heavy timber in the roof. Tower ladder trucks poured the water on from outside, but without an inside attack the cathedral quite likely would have been lost.

"We had fire blowing through the roof, and there's heavy smoke conditions up in the attic area and when you walked in you could see water cascading down," said Lt. Eric Brodersen, Chicago Fire Dept.

To get at the fire from inside, firefighters had to run nearly 500 feet of hose through the front door, straight up a vertical ladder, through a three by three opening into an attic filled with smoke, and somehow make their way on narrow wooden planks.

"They had to crawl through so much - loose boards, a thirty foot drop to a ceiling 100 years old," said John Martinez, Chicago firefighter.

Martinez was in the second group of firefighters who were sent in. The first group led the attack until they were called back amidst concerns the fire might be getting away - but finally enough water from above made it manageable again.

There is a lot of clean-up ahead inside the sanctuary where several inches of water had to be drained. It'll likely be months before Mass can be held in the church again. Holy Name will need a new roof, and restoration on columns and sections of the ceiling that collapsed creating water spouts.

At one point, the basement had about a foot of water in it. But remarkably, the sanctuary was not damaged by fire. The cardinals' hats, or galeros, which are suspended from the ceiling, got wet, but appeared intact.

Over at Engine 42, Truck 3, they're aware things could've gone much differently, but didn't.

"The roof could've come in and the building would have been a total loss," said Lt. Dan Torrise, Chicago Fire Department.

"We focused on getting the job done. It's teamwork really," said Lt. Brian McKermitt, Chicago Fire Department.

"We're going to be open, starting tomorrow, in the parish center in the downstairs level and on the club room for a full schedule of five Masses," said Fr. Dan Mayall, pastor. "On the weekend, we'll be open with regular scheduled Masses in the auditorium, which is located in the same building."

A worker replacing wooden supports with steel ones reported the fire.

"I don't know the materials, but I know it was structural repair that has been going on for the last year to replace wood that had been the support system of the cathedral since it was built in 1875. It was being replaced with steel. That was our problem, our original structural problem a year ago," Mayall said.

Early signs indicate the fire began in a space between the cathedral's decorative ceiling and the roof line, in an area just above, behind and to the side of the altar. The attic space is rich with timber trusses and beams that make perfect fuel for a fire. Flames quickly poked through the roof as water from fire department hoses poured into the building.

Firefighters save cathedral

Extraordinary efforts by Chicago firefighters saved Holy Name Cathedral.

The type of call that firefighters dread: fire in the roof of a church. Such fires are almost always hard to get at, usually fed by old, dry timbers, and it can get out of control very, very quickly.

Firefighters on Wednesday knew what they were facing and they beat the odds and saved the cathedral.

When firefighters first arrived flames were coming through the roof on the northeast side of the cathedral. To get at them, firefighters had to run 500 feet of hose through the front door, up a narrow ladder and into a smoke-filled attic, then negotiate a catwalk with loose wooden planks.

"You can't see anything," said Chicago firefighter John Martinez.

But they got water on the fire and enough to slow it while the tower ladders poured on more from the outside. The sanctuary took on a lot of water but no fire damage.

Some firefighters had only been on the job for just three days.

"We're well trained. We were trained very well," said Yonan Bitivin, Chicago Fire Dept. candidate.

Early morning fire

Crews were first called to Holy Name Cathedral, 735 N. State Street, around 5:30 a.m. Flames could be seen shooting from several spots along the roof.

While firefighters worked to control the fire, State Street was closed between Chicago and Huron. Superior and Chicago were blocked off to traffic between Dearborn and Wabash. Some CTA bus routes were being rerouted.

No injuries reported

No injuries were reported. The rectory of Holy Name, which is one of Chicago's most historic cathedrals, was evacuated and warming buses were sent to the scene. There were reports that firefighters were having difficulty getting water to the scene because of frigid temperatures.

"We had to pull the extra alarm because of the high ceiling and because of the size of the church," John Brooks, fire commissioner, said.

Brooks said once the flames had died down, the goal was to soak the roof with huge water streams to completely strike the blaze.

"You have 14-foot ceilings. It's pretty hard for us to get to the roof area," Brooks said. "The tin ceilings also make it difficult for us. That's why we're using the master streams to kind of open the roof area."

Fire contained to roof

Chicago Fire Dept. spokesman Larry Langford said the fire appears to have been contained in the roof/attic area and did not spread to the sanctuary area.

"We have a sprinkler system in there that I understand is on right now," Holy Name's pastor, Fr. Dan Mayall, said during the firefight. "It's trying to protect what's down below, the decorative stuff and the architectural stuff that is inside the cathedral. As I understand it from the commissioner and from other people who have told me, the fire started up above the sprinkler system in the attic where there has been work going on for the last year."

The historic building opened in 1875. The current cathedral opened after the original one was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Pope John Paul II visited Holy Name Cathedral when he came to Chicago in October of 1979.

The sanctuary underwent extensive repairs during a multimillion-dollar renovation after significant problems were found in the ceiling structure. In February of 2008, a decorative piece of the ceiling fell onto the pews. The sanctuary was closed until November of 2008, when daily Mass finally resumed there.

Fire officials said the blaze significantly damaged the roof. The sanctuary also sustained a good deal of water damage.

Francis Xavier Ward School, a separate, nearby building affiliated with the cathedral, was not damaged. The rectory is attached, but the blaze did not spread. The area was evacuated as a precautionary measure.

Structural repairs underway

Mayall said work on the roof had been completed but that structural repairs were still taking place in the attic area.

"It was February 12 last year that we saw we had a structural problem," he said. "We were shut down for six months. We were out of that building from February through August of 2008. We went back in at the end of August. The structural repairs continued. They were scheduled to continue until August on the support beams. That's the work that has been going on for the last year."

The pastor said smoke alarms went off Wednesday morning.

"My chief of staff heard the smoke alarm alert sometime between 5 and 6 o'clock as the commissioner said," said Mayall. "Those of us who live in the rectory, which is attached to the cathedral, were alerted by those that heard the sirens and alerted all of us and got us out of the building."

The pastor said the church has been through a lot in the last year.

"It's a shame to see that we're back at square one again right now because it seems that we're going to face some things that our parish is going to have to adjust and our status at the cathedral will have to adjust," he said.

"It had turned out so beautifully," said Colleen Dolan, archdiocese spokesperson. "They did such an amazing job of restoring it. It looked better than it had even before it had been closed down for the renovation. It's really a shame. I'm sure we will get it restored and look great again."

School, rectory, convent OK

Francis X. Ward school is not a parish school but a regional one, so students live all over and come from other neighborhoods. The principal said she was in touch with all the people that need to be alerted from the school.

Eleven priests live in the rectory. There are five religious sisters that live in a convent attached to it as well. All were out and safe.

Brooks said the fire department's response took only two minutes.

"I think the sprinklers helped in containing the fire, keeping it from spreading so quickly," the commissioner said. "This fire could have been burning as long as all night. Maybe the sprinkler system was three or four feet below where this fire actually occurred. It kept the fire from actually going down as quick as it would have."

The fire department chaplain was able to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament. All sacramental materials were salvaged, according to the pastor.

Cardinal Reacts

The cardinal and bishop of the archdiocese said the cathedral was initially full of water, but the plan was to restore, not rebuild.

"First of all, we want to, I think, thank God that no one was injured," Francis Cardinal George said. "Father Bishop, Father Mayall, the priests, the sisters who live in the convent are all safe. There was one firefighter whose back was sprained trying to get in the crawl space. We should all pray for his health and recovery. But the fire, from what they have told me, went above the sprinklers. The sprinklers are all on. There is a lot of water. You don't see the fire from within the cathedral. The fire attached itself to the roof beams and we don't know what damage there is to the roof. The rest is water damage."

George said he is grateful the damage wasn't worse and grateful to the firefighters and the police who helped.

"Chicago has always bounced back from fires. I think we'll bounce back from this, especially the cathedral parish," George said. "The people are so good in this parish. It's such an active and loving place that I'm sure they will gather around again after just a year and help to repair the cathedral. I hope others will help as well."

George described the interior when he first saw it, saying as he walked in, at first glance, everything was intact. Then he noticed there were icicles on the pews and water on the floor. There was water pouring through the electrical installations. The electricity and gas were on, so the cathedral was bright and lit, but there was lots of water coming through the light fixtures.

"So it looks like the cathedral when you walk in, but it's full of water. The fire damage is up above," George said.

The cardinal said there is apparently little or no water damage to the great organ and the ceiling is intact.

George said before coming to the cathedral he prayed and said Mass, as he does every morning with the sisters at the house.

"The first thought was the cathedral parish has suffered very much in disrupting its own worship service, its other services," the cardinal said. "I thought that they will bounce back, but I felt very, very sad for them especially and for all of us. The cathedral is an important building in our history. But I know how the parish rallied around during that year when they didn't have access to their church. Now for a while, they won't have access to it again."

George said the cardinal hats hanging from the ceiling, a popular and sacred fixture for many parishioners and tourists, were still there, intact, but he was unable to tell whether they were water damaged.

"The galero is the official hat that is given to a cardinal," George said. "It has long tassels and is red and big. The tradition in a cathedral church is that when a cardinal dies, the galero is hung from the rafters of the cathedral until it kind of decays. Some of them are pretty decayed. They have been bolstered a little bit by wires and wood and all the rest. There are five of them up there for the five archbishops who have been cardinals."

Renovations at Holy Name:

  • March 3, 2008 Services at Holy Name moved temporarily
  • March 7, 2008 Holy Name Cathedral potentially relocates
  • March 26, 2008 Holy Name to stay closed as roof inspections go on
  • August 30, 2008: Saturday mass held at Chicago's Holy Name
  • November 17, 2008: Holy Name's cathedral reopens
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