This is an excerpt from The Northeastern Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame: Wilton, Connecticut, 1973-1989, written by Sister Kay O’Connell, SSND. It is used with permission.
The chapel fire broke out on Thursday, January 7, 1988, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
Sister Theodora was in the chapel praying in the last bench, as was her custom every day, when she heard Edouarda Guardado, a member of the housekeeping staff who was cleaning the sanctuary, say “Sister, look.” A tiny wisp of white smoke was coming from the highest part of the ceiling above the main altar. By the time “T” returned from the reception area, where she had called the fire department and alerted Sister Janice Algie, the wisp had become an ominous plume of dark smoke.
When Sister Joyce Mary Williams phoned the provincial house to alert the Council, which was in the midst of a meeting, sirens could already be heard coming up Belden Hill Road. It was four minutes after the call had been placed at 1:22pm. Wilton’s fire chief, William von Zehle, immediately called for assistance from the nearby towns of Westport, Weston, Georgetown and the city of Norwalk; over 35 men fought the blaze in 25-degree temperatures for almost an hour before bringing it under control.
Chief von Zehle said later that church fires are unusual in that “you can’t pull a 35-foot ceiling down from the inside.” Wilton’s chapel was very solidly constructed with three inches of heavy timber under the snow-covered slate roof. Because of the thick smoke, firefighters were unable to see the blaze until they hacked through the roof from the freezing, slippery outside and found that it had reached about 20 feet on either side of the peak.
This alarm was Chief von Zehle’s first call on his new job as Wilton’s fire chief. He himself carried the tabernacle to a side altar to save it from being covered with the charred remains of the roof. He reported this to Sister Kay O’Connell, saying, “I brought the ‘chest’ to safety.” Von Zehle later worte to thank Sister Katherine Maureen Kinnally and the food service staff for the cart filled with coffee, tea, sandwiches, soup, juice and milk that was brought outside. A newspaper quoted one firefighter saying, “You name it; it was the best I’ve ever had, being fed at a fire.”
Lieutenant Karl Dolnier, also from Wilton, was saddened when the stained-glass windows had to be broken; he remembered being an altar boy for the sisters 25 years before. When Sister Kay saw a firefighter atop a ladder raising a hatchet to break the first window, she protested that the windows were “priceless.” Chief von Zehle told her that the order to break some had probably been delayed too long already, that it was absolutely necessary to release the dangerous gasses building up inside, “otherwise they’ll explode and you’ll lose the whole chapel. Firefighters were able to confine the damage to holes about two-feet square at the tops of four windows.
As a precaution, Sisters whose bedrooms were on the top floor of the motherhouse were brought downstairs to the community rooms on the main floor. Sister Claudia Sweeney refused to leave until she had her pet bird’s cage in hand. A staff member, Bob Bruder, posed as a firefighter to persuade Sister Laudo Baumann to come out of her room and then carried her downstairs. Sister Kay remembers that Bob never left the top floor until he was sure every Sister was safe. Everyone spoke gratefully of the fire’s timing; if it had been one o’clock in the morning instead of the afternoon, it might have gone undetected for hours and caused a great deal more damage, perhaps even death.
Bishop Walter Curtis, who heard about the fire on his car radio, came immediately, arriving around 4pm. He viewed the damage and spoke with Chief von Zehle. In the dining room at suppertime, he went from table to table speaking to each Sister before he went through the buffet line and sat down to eat. One of his first acts as Bishop of Bridgeport had been to dedicate the chapel 26 years before. The following November, he would rededicate it as one of his last acts before retirement.
As soon as he heard about the fire, Mr. V.K. Jonynas, the Lithuanian émigré who had created the windows, sent a message to the Council that no one was to restore them but himself. For these windows, considered to be some of his finest work, he re-opened the Jonynas and Shepherd Art Studio and “re-invented” the designs of the broken panes. The blueprints for the originals – done 30 years previously – had been destroyed. E and F Contractors of Bridgeport called workmen out of retirement who had constructed the original ceiling and roof; they brought their expertise and their own specialized tools for restoring the unique diamond-shaped panels of the ceiling to their original beauty.
“We are One in This Moment of Hope” was the title of Rededication Day, November 12, 1988. Twelve-hundred guests – relatives, friends, former Sisters, faculty colleagues, pastors, parishioners, firefighters, business associates and benefactors (especially those who had previously belonged to the Guilds) – were greeted in the program booklet with these words, signed by the Sisters of the Wilton Province:
Welcome to this day of great joy for us as we re-enter the sacred space of our beautiful motherhouse chapel. We have longed for this day and are deeply grateful that you are here to share it with us.
In God’s providence, the rededication of our chapel has become an occasion for us also to dedicate ourselves anew. We know, too, that the sacred space of our world’s future lies before us. Our international congregation is calling us to a vision of global unity and to a mission of special concern for the poor.
As we embrace this challenge, we ask you to be “one with us in this moment of hope.”
Bishop Curtis gave the homily on the Gospel of John 17:11, 17-23, chosen especially for its place in paragraph one of You Are Sent. Sister Kay spoke after communion, referring especially to the devotion of Mr. Mutrux and Mr. Jonynas, who rose when they were applauded by the congregation. Of the firefighters, Sister Kay said, “You have to see a firefighter astride your roof on a freezing winter day to appreciate who and what they are.” Beauty and joy, appreciation and hope characterized every moment of the liturgy.