Ost The fire at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Ost took only a few minutes to extinguish once the first firefighters were able to turn a hose on it on Feb. 3.
Damage from the fire itself was limited to the southwest corner, where a side altar was reduced to ashes, plaster peeled away from an adjacent wall, the lead melted in a stained glass window and a statue of the church’s namesake, St. Joseph holding the baby Jesus, was destroyed.
But the smoke damage was another matter.
“The rest of the church was full of soot and smoke, from the attic to the basement, everywhere,” said Father Ivan Eck, the pastor of the church the last 15 years.
The damage would cost more than $1.05 million to repair.
ACT, a disaster cleanup and restoration company, pulled up carpet and removed pews and took them to Wichita for cleaning. In their place, workers erected five semitruck loads of scaffolding, creating four levels to work on as ACT cleaned smoke and soot from every inch of the walls, ceiling and windows. Then a sealer was applied to ensure that the soot and smoke would not bleed back through new paint on the walls.
But this was a church, requiring much more than rolling new paint on the walls. A Wichita company specializing in religious artwork, Art Effects, was hired to repair damaged plaster and seal and repaint the rich ornamental detail throughout the church, including capitals atop the pillars and 11 murals painted in the ceiling arches close to 40 feet above the floor.
While all that was going on, Mass was moved to the nearby parish hall for the next five months and one week. In addition to Sunday Mass, the hall was used for four baptisms and a funeral.
But enough of the restoration had been completed by July 11 that the congregation was able to return to the church for Sunday Mass for the first time since the fire. The work still isn’t quite done (the side altar is still being rebuilt off site), but the parish reached another milestone in its recovery last week when Art Effects delivered a restored copy of the statue of St. Joseph.
“We got on E-Bay and found one in Afton, Minn., outside St. Paul,” Eck said. “It was made by the DaPrato Co. from Chicago. I could see the name of the maker on the base, so we plugged in the name of the manufacturer and St. Joseph and came up with all kinds of statues available. This one was made by the same company and the same time frame.”
But it required repair by sculptor Randy Julian of Wichita and repainting by Naomi Ullum of Hutchinson before it would be suitable for display in a church again.
“It was not in great shape,” said Robert Elliot of Art Effects. “Someone had tried to repair and repaint it, and it looked terrible.”
But it looks great now, just like the rest of the church.
“In one word, it was a pleasure,” Ullum said of her work repainting the statue and the murals in the arches. “An opportunity to do this kind of work for the family of God is exceptional.”
Hutchinson Fire Department Inspector L.D. Peevyhouse said the fire is considered suspicious, but with no suspects or leads, it is not under active investigation.
The fire started somewhere near the side altar sometime after 4 p.m. Feb. 3. Eck discovered the fire about 5:15 p.m. when he went to make sure everything was ready for a confirmation rehearsal.
The church had been built in 1913, 13 years before Eck was born nearby on a farm in the middle of what is now Cheney Reservoir. Eck would be baptized in the church, receive his First Communion there and then be ordained a priest there.
Firefighters from Haven, Cheney and Pretty Prairie responded, but the first unit to arrive was able to put out the fire quickly.
Eck was thankful that the building — red brick on the outside but a wooden infrastructure on the inside, even inside the pillars holding up the ceiling — was still standing. Elliot, whose task it would be to restore the church’s luster, said the damage was “overwhelming.”
“The fire was so hot it burned all the way through the back and front of the St. Joseph statue and reduced the (side) altar to ashes,” he said. “It was amazing that it could burn so hot that it melted the lead in the stained glass window and bubbled paint on the high altar 20 to 30 feet away.”
Every surface in the church — carpeting, pews, walls, ceilings, hymnals — was stained by soot and smoke.
It took 10 days just to erect the scaffolding so the cleaning could begin. Some of the decorative detail was so fine that workers used Q-Tips to clean it. Once that was done, Elliot’s team of artists took over.
They had taken pictures of the murals to study them, and a transparent sealer was applied so that they could paint directly over the originals.
Except for the missing side altar — Karl Freund of Cheney is rebuilding it to match the other side altar — the church is as good as new.