In today’s History Project article, Maxine Stovall shares memories of a major restoration project she undertook in the sacristy of the 1886 St. Mary’s Church, it’s place in her parents’ lives, and the fire that touched all of us so deeply.
When I moved to Fort Wayne, my first goal was to find a church for Sunday Mass. After a couple of months attending Mass at various churches, I finally decided to try St. Mary’s downtown. The feel of the Mass, the congregation, and the priest was different from the previously attended parishes. I felt like I could make this church my home and my family.
Over time, I became involved in the ministries of the parish and under the influence of a priest like Fr. Tom O’Conner, that means staying busy! He often preached about sharing our time, talents, and treasures.
One of the projects I asked to do was the refinishing of the vestment cabinetry in the sacristy. The entire room was filled with the most beautiful quarter-sawn oak, darkened by time and use. The brass hardware was dull and tarnished. Fr. Tom gave me permission to do whatever was needed for the restoration.
Around this same timeframe (1990), my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. For those with this disease, it’s as if a fuzzy veil is slowly being pulled over all that you have known, but sometimes there are unexplained flashes of clarity of various parts of your life and personality. He was a retired carpenter/handyman who loved working with his hands. My mother was in desperate need of help with keeping him occupied. Caregivers are often the ones who suffer most, and my siblings and I could see that she was exhausted. These were the days prior to readily available in-home assistance.
With Fr. Tom’s permission, I would take the already stripped doors and hardware to my parent’s home in Indianapolis for my father to work on. On my days off, the remaining cabinetry was stripped and sanded in place. Dad hand sanded every door surface, giving special attention to all the decorative curves made by the original craftsmen. I watched him use his fingertips to check each area for smoothness. Almost every weekend for over a year, we would trade finished pieces for more pieces needing his skills. After some help from the Pro Strip Metal Company, he and I polished every hinge and drawer pull ’til the brass was shining again. The project required many gallons of wood stripper and varnish as well as brass polish and many bags of steel wool. My Mom was grateful for the care breaks when Dad and I went shopping for more supplies—he loved hardware stores.
We officially completed the project in the Spring of 1993. As Fr. Tom was getting vested for the Easter Vigil Mass, I was installing the final piece of hardware—both of us pleased with the final product. During the project I had given many photos to my father but only two remain. Who could have predicted that we would enjoy the redone sacristy for only a few months.
I’m sure that all of us attending St. Mary’s at the time can tell you exactly where we were and what we were doing when told of the lightning strike and fire at the church. It was mid-afternoon on September 2, 1993. I was finishing with a patient at Southtown Veterinary Clinic when someone came into the room and said, “ Your church is on fire!” I immediately left to retrieve TC, “Tom’s Cat” from the rectory. On the way there, I naively thought that some of the interior items could be saved. After securing the cat ( who wasn’t at all pleased to see me), I was heartbroken while watching the church go up in flames. All I could say was “Oh My God”.
Fr. Tom’s face was wet from the rain and strained with the realization that the church would not be saved. He watched, just as helplessly as the rest of us, seeing the firefighter’s axes bouncing off the Lexan windows –put there to protect the original handmade stained-glass windows. The city of Fort Wayne was shocked, and the event made national news. Traffic was backed up in all directions, and the windows of nearby buildings were filled with the faces of those watching the fire.
Just a day later, blessings and prayers poured in from all directions. People picked up shards of stained glass and bricks for remembrance. Many items were returned to the porch of the untouched rectory. People who utilized the Soup Kitchen were fed with food donated from the Eckrich Company Labor Day picnic. Mass was held in the yard and alley behind the rectory on the Sunday following the fire. Fr. reminded us that WE are the church. Monetary donations were handed to parishioners from car windows as people drove by.
Once we could safely enter parts of the building that were structurally sound, Fr. Tom and I discovered that the fire had not done major damage to the woodwork in the sacristy. Only one side panel that faced the entry to the church proper was charred. A crew was hired to salvage many items from the building before it was razed for safety reasons. A few years later, most items were sold at auction, including the sacristy woodwork.
We all have differing memories of that very sad and trying time. I chose one of mine to be that my father’s memory was intact enough to still be capable of demonstrating his skill in returning the sacristy cabinetry to its former beauty.
My Dad passed away one month before the fire. It was overwhelming to see several members of St. Mary’s at his funeral Mass in Indianapolis. Fr. Tom even concelebrated the service with our home parish priest! I would have never expected that a woodworking project would have brought me even closer to a church family called St. Mary’s.
Maxine Stovall, July, 2023