Oconto Falls parish recovers from fire

By | February 23, 2012

Support for St. Anthony School

Financial donations are sought for the St. Anthony School Rebuilding Fund. Send donations to: Associated Bank, 134 N. Main St., Oconto Falls, WI 54154. For more information about the fund, contact Associated Bank at (920) 846-2831.

“People are crying a lot,” he said. “They are taking it very personally. This is part of their family; it’s part of their community, and so they are taking this as if it happened to their home.”

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A restoration service company cleans the interior of St. Anthony Church on Feb. 22, one day after a fire broke out inside the adjacent school building, causing extensive damange. Masses at St. Anthony will resume on Saturday, Feb. 25. (Manu Junemann | For The Compass)

Lynn Beaumier, religious education coordinator and sacristan at the parish, called Fr. Sember at 7:02 p.m. on Tuesday to alert him to the fire.

“The principal (Rosemary Marifke) called me from Suring and asked me if the school was on fire,” explained Beaumier. “I told her, ‘Let me see and I will call you back.’ I called her back; then I called Father and I then called our business manager. Everybody in town knew within a half an hour. My daughter lives in Massachusetts. She called me within an hour and asked me, ‘Mom, are you OK?'”

Beaumier added that fortunately no one was in the school at the time of the fire. A worship meeting, held in the building, had ended at approximately 5:20 p.m. on Tuesday.

Many parish members arrived on Wednesday morning to see if Mass was going to be held. Lisa Shelton, business manager at St. Anthony, said the thick soot inside the church was evident when wiping the backrests of the pews. A restoration service company was busy cleaning the church on Wednesday. Masses at St. Anthony will resume on Saturday, Feb. 25.

“We are really lucky with the fact that the fire department was able to get here so quickly” said Fr. Sember. “This could have been a much worse fire. They caught it in time.”

The damage to the school building will force the 47 students in grades 4K-5 to hold classes elsewhere. Shelton praised Grace Lutheran Church for offering space immediately.

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Caution tape blocks the entry of St. Anthony School in Oconto Falls Feb. 22, one day after a fire gutted the inside of the 55-year-old building. (Manu Junemann | For The Compass)

“(Grace Lutheran) made arrangements while the fire was still going on,” she said.

“It looks like the space is going to work for us,” said Fr. Sember. “It’s amazing the support coming in from all over. Having a direction for our school was our biggest concern besides cooperating with the officers and the authorities. How will we keep the school going and fulfill our promise to educate our children?”

Faith formation classes at St. Anthony are also affected. Beaumier said that the four remaining evenings of classes and a penance service will not be rescheduled. Students preparing for first Communion will meet on Sundays after Mass. Confirmation students will continue to meet in the church.

Fr. Sember connected the fire to the start of the Lenten season in his Wednesday morning homily.

“It’s Ash Wednesday and I felt that we had an overabundance of ashes,” he said. “It definitely put a new perspective on Ash Wednesday when you have a school that is charred. I worked that in. It made me reflect on the meaning of the ashes and how all this world, all this stuff, just passes away, including ourselves. You have to be ready for eternal life.

“It’s not exactly how anyone wanted to spend their Lent, but it’s providential in a way that it coincides with the beginning of Lent,” he added. “It’s a reminder for us of the 40 days the Israelites wandered in the desert looking for a home. It looks like our school will be wandering a little bit in the desert, learning, just like the Israelites did, to rely on God and the generosity of God’s people.”

The Office of the Attorney General, Wisconsin Department of Justice, reported that local authorities have taken a person into custody in connection to the fire.

Fr. Sember said the challenge for the St. Anthony community will be the unknowns.

“It’s going to take a lot of patience for us to wait to know what needs to be done,” he said. “We’ve received an outpouring of support from other parishes, fellow priests and the local community. They’ve been so supportive and encouraging. They’ve offered to do so much for us, but we don’t know exactly yet what we are going to need. We ask for their prayers of support at this time.”

St. Anthony School will celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2013.

“We will keep going,” said Beaumier. “God will take care of us.”

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