Fire severely damages Fort Scott’s church

Bishop Carl A. Kemme, diocesan officials, and construction experts assess the damage in Mary Queen of Angels Church in Fort Scott on Wednesday, Aug. 30.

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Fr. Yancey Burgess wasn’t planning on a visit from Bishop Carl A. Kemme the week of Aug. 29.

But St. Mary Queen of Angels Parish in Fort Scott welcomed the bishop and his consoling words Wednesday, Aug. 31, two days after lightning struck the oldest church in the Diocese of Wichita destroying its roof and causing damage that is still being assessed.

Bishop Kemme said as soon as he heard about the fire he wanted to get to Fort Scott as quickly as possible.

“I wanted to go to Fort Scott to visit with Father Yancey to offer him and his people – especially the dear children in the grade school next door to the Church – some words of encouragement.”

He added that he also wanted to personally survey the damage.

“We bishops are spiritual fathers and so are compelled to be with our people when tragedy strikes and to remind them that God has not abandoned them and that there is always hope,” he said.

“I am very grateful to Father Yancey for his faithful and steady leadership of the parish in this time of crisis and assure him and the people he serves that his bishop is remembering all of them in his daily prayers and will accompany them until and beyond the day when the parish can return to worship in the church.”

Damage assessed

Insurance adjustors, structural engineers, and construction experts had already inspected the damage two days after the blaze.

“We’ve done a tear-off,” Fr. Burgess said. “Everything that was hanging from the building has been pulled down by the first department.”

It was necessary to put up barriers around the church, he added because the building’s structural integrity is in question.

The chalice and other precious items in the church were removed as soon as possible, Father said. Other religious items around the sanctuary, including the large crucifix to the right of the altar, were also removed. “We got that into the gym and removed the corpus,” he said. “It’s in pretty rough condition because of the heat and water.”

A restoration artist has been contacted to assess the damage, Fr. Burgess said, adding that as much as possible will be salvaged from the church. Parishioners and others also took part in a cleanup of the area soon after the fire.

Mass to be moved to gym

The school, located next to the church, was not damaged. The gymnasium will be used for Mass, confessions, and other services for the time being.

Superintendent Janet Eaton said her prayers are with the parishioners.

“St. Mary’s Catholic School is closed today (Aug. 30) out of concern for safety with the church fire that occurred during the night. This parish and its school were recognized with the “Distinguished School of Excellence in Catholic Culture” last year. Their love for their beautiful church was incredible. They are a very strong community where the Catholicity is seen in everything they do.”

Questions loom

Fr. Burgess said the parish and the diocese have some difficult decisions to make.

Several barriers to restoration may be raised because of the age of the church, the materials used in its construction, and building codes, he said, adding that those issues are being assessed.

“Right now we’re working on safety, cleaning, and security,” he said.

Fort Scott’s Fire Chief Dave Bruner said his department received a call at 9:12 p.m. Monday evening that there was heavy smoke and fire coming from the church.

Other fire departments called

It was a second significant fire that day, he said. The department responded to a house fire at around 9 o’clock that morning.

Bruner, who has been with the department for 29 years, said the Fort Scott Fire Department received a lot of help with the church fire. Several township and county departments assisted along with an aerial truck from the Nevada, Missouri, fire department. The Arma, Kansas, fire department sent a truck to Fort Scott to cover the station in case of other calls. Nevada is 20 miles east of Fort Scott. Arma is 21 miles south.

“We did have one firefighter injured – just a minor injury. He went to the ER and was treated and released,” Bruner said.

Although the roof was destroyed and the church sustained extensive water damage, he said, he was amazed the interior didn’t look worse.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the the the congregation and all the members of the community that’s been affected by it,” the fire chief said. “We’re still here to help in any way we can.”