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Rising from ashes

Damage is shown inside St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Fulda following a fire in early April. Submitted Photo

FULDA — There was a sense of loss and sadness following an April 9 fire at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church. 

The Rev. Andrew Vogel, though, said the tragedy is being used as a way to come back stronger than ever.

“I saw it that way at the very beginning, not that you would ever wish for something like this,” Vogel said. “But there is always a positive within these things. We’re trying to find them and use the opportunity and resources to make the best of this situation.”

Firefighters were paged to the church at 4 p.m. on that Wednesday afternoon to find a blaze in the south sacristy.

“We were very blessed that it happened at 4 p.m. and not 4 a.m,” Vogel said. “The Fulda firemen need to be congratulated and the police department as well. They responded in such a timely manner.

“In some ways the fire was contained to that one room, so we were very blessed. If it happened at 4 a.m., I might have woken up to ashes.”

In the days and weeks following, crews have worked to clean up and restore the church.

“It’s a vibrant working community, and with the insurance that we have, they moved right in,” Vogel said. “There was immediate talk of what do we do. There was never any question of would we or wouldn’t we fix it up — it was just a matter of how.”

Outside of the necessary repairs, Vogel isn’t sure what else will be tackled, although there is discussion of using the opportunity to update the church.

“It’s still a work in progress, and we don’t have all the decisions made yet,” he said. “It’s an exciting thing. It’s a great opportunity to maybe do some things we otherwise wouldn’t have done.”

The room in which the fire started is being stripped and rebuilt. There will need to be some repainting by the altar area, and the pews will need to be cleaned. However, in some areas, it was decided to go above and beyond.

“We’re going to refurbish the pews,” Vogel said. “The insurance company was going to pay for having the pews cleaned of the soot and things like that to make sure they didn’t smell. But we’re actually going to have them sanded down and then refinished.

“That will be a little bit above and beyond what the insurance company will do,” he continued. “It’s not just getting back to the way the pews were before the fire. It’s trying to take this opportunity to refinish them and make them look new.”

There were plans for renovations to the church even before the fire. The organ had been retuned a couple of years ago, and will need to be cleaned and retuned again.

“We were talking about putting new carpet upstairs in the church and maybe restoring the hardwood in the altar area,” Vogel said. “It looks like we’re going to still proceed to do that. Obviously, we’ll have to replace a lot of other stuff as well. That was already on the books before the fire, but we will continue to look to do that.”

While the one room must be rebuilt, Vogel said the damage could have been worse.

“In some ways it was a blessing. The high altar maybe got a little warm and some of the paint peeled, but for the most part, even though it’s a wooden structure, it appears to have survived pretty well,” he said.

“Our free-standing altar is fine. They totally gutted the south sacristy where the fire started. That will have to be rebuilt — the cabinets and even the walls.”

To keep track of the progress on the church, Vogel created a Facebook page called “St. Gabriel Fire.”

“I had lunch with one of the parishioners and they were asking questions. Afterward, the parishioner said, ‘It’s great to hear all of the things that are going on,’” Vogel related. “He said other people were wondering what was going on and if it was possible to set something up to let other people know what was going on. It was really the parishioners’ idea and not mine, but it’s seemingly worked out pretty well.”

The page had more than 200 likes just a few days after its inception.

“The site was created to keep the people of the community informed, but I have to admit, it looks like it’s gone a lot further than that,” Vogel said.

On the page is a picture of a mural at the back of the church that Vogel said may be restored. However, he added, that’s more of a wish-list item. For such items, Vogel has set up a website for donations from those interested. It can be found at

The congregation is currently having its Mass at St. Columba in Iona, and will do so for the time being. It may be two months or more before St. Gabriel’s will be available.

“Father (James) Seitz has been very welcoming, and so has the community of Iona, so we thank them very much for allowing us to use their parish during the interim,” Vogel said.

St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church was built in the early 1900s. This is at least the second fire on record for the congregation.

“The cornerstone says 1911,” Vogel said. “The first church was a wooden structure that burnt down to the ground, I believe, in 1910. As far as we know for sure, this is the second fire.”

And just as before, the community is rallying around the church.

“I have been very impressed by the support of the community — not just the Catholic community, but the community at large,” Vogel said. “There seems to be great interest and concern about the church, although I suppose I underestimate, judging by how many likes the page got on Facebook. I thought it would be just the local Catholics, but it has branched out much farther than that.”

As the progress is being documented, Vogel said the hope is that St. Gabriel’s will return better than ever.

“That’s the way we’re going to look at it,” he said. “Just like the resurrection, the death of Jesus was not a good thing, but our salvation came with the Easter morning. It will be the same thing with our church.

“You would never desire a fire, but the resurrection of the church will be even more glorious than it was when the fire started.”

Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.