The New England campus of Thomas Aquinas College skirted disaster when a fire broke out in their prized chapel early on Easter morning. While the damages sustained to Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel meant the venue for Easter services had to change, the structure itself was saved from catastrophic destruction thanks to the fast actions of a priest and the efforts of firefighters.
According to a press release, the fire broke out in the sacristy on Easter morning. It is believed that the fire arose due to the embers of incense used in the Easter Vigil services the night before. These smoldering embers sprang back to life when Fr. Greg Markey, Chaplain of the New England campus, arrived to prepare the chapel for Easter.
When he opened the door, this allowed fresh oxygen into the sacristy which fanned the flames that had been slowly spreading in the night. Fr. Markey described the scene:
“I opened the door, and an enormous wall of dense black smoke came billowing out,” the chaplain recalls. “I grabbed the fire extinguisher and rushed into the room and went after the fire. It was coming through the floorboards and coming through the walls.”
The quick thinking priest said he emptied the extinguisher into the blaze to little effect, at which point he called in the fire department. Before they arrived, however, he’d found a second fire extinguisher and launched another attempt to gain control of the fire before it spread further. Fr. Markey recalled battling the blaze for about 20 minutes before the fire fighters arrived, which he described as “a pretty frightening 20 minutes!”
In the end, the fire was quenched by the Northfield Fire Department. In an interview with the Greenfield Recorder, Deputy Fire Chief David Quinn Jr. suggested that the damages could have been much worse had Fr. Markey not made his attempts to quell the fire. He said:
“Compared to what it could have been, the damage is minimal,” adding that Fr. Markey’s intervention “helped a great deal.”
While the fire could have ruined another parish’s Easter celebration, a little creative thinking from school officials saw students and faculty quickly adapt the college’s Olivia Music Hall to host the Easter liturgy. Mass was reportedly only delayed for a couple of hours while arrangements were made, which included finding a vestment for Fr. Markey and transferring the chapel’s beloved icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help from the Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati Student Center for display. They even brought in a tabernacle which they had on hand from a recently shuttered convent.
The press release explains that the chapel thankfully avoided structural harm, with most of the damage contained within the sacristy, which is described as coated in “a heavy layer of ash.” They will also have to begin a restoration effort to clean cosmetic damages caused by the smoke. Still, administrators are confident that the work can be completed before their May 13 commencement.
It was fortuitous that the chapel was spared from structural damage, as the historic building is one of the treasures of Thomas Aquinas College’s New England campus. Built in 1909, when the campus was still the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies, the building is a valuable historical and cultural landmark. The school has previously put a lot into its renovations as well, adding confessionals, Stations of the Cross, and even a mosaic replica of the beloved Catholic icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Fr. Markey praised the quick responses of the fire fighters, but he still lamented what was lost in the fire:
“We are deeply grateful for the firefighters who risked their lives and sacrificed their Easter morning to save our chapel,” Father Markey stated. “We have really amazing vestments here, with all kinds of gold threads, and they’re damaged; the new paint job, with the gold leafing and the stenciling that was done on the walls, will probably have to be cleaned and touched up.”
He was quick, however, to emphasize his gratitude for God’s providence in sparing the building from more extensive damage. Fr. Markey recalled the first responders’ incredulity at the Chapel’s survival:
“The police chief said to me, ‘You could have lost the whole church very easily. Somebody was watching over you.’”