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Arson draws parish family, community together

An arsonist caused only material damage at St. Monica Church in Creve Coeur two days after Christmas, destroying the Nativity scene, perhaps irreparably damaging the altar, and creating smoke and water damage to close the building for a few weeks.

However, the parish suffered no harm in a spiritual sense. Masses and confessions went on as scheduled, just relocated to the adjoining school building — the gymnasium for weekend Masses, and a classroom for daily Masses and confessions.

In fact, the arson caused minimal disruption to the parish's sacramental life. The next morning, pastor Father Joe Weber and Father Michael Donald each celebrated a daily morning Mass, with Eucharistic Adoration in between, as usual. The only change from the regular parish schedule is the suspension of all-day Adoration on Tuesdays.

"You are the Church, the heart of the church ... the Body of Christ, (so) we gather here in a different worship space," Father Weber told the congregation from the gym stage at the start of Sunday Mass on New Year's Day, the solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

"You are still the church," he repeated. "We gather as God's family."

Parishioner Gabriela Kuntz called this sentiment, simply, "wonderful."

Though the arson had the potential of tearing the fabric of the community, it had the exact opposite effect ... and then some. It not only brought the parish family together but strengthened its connections in the St. Louis area.

"We have seen tremendous support," Father Weber said.

Chaminade College Preparatory School loaned St. Monica a Nativity scene for its temporary worship space through the end of the Christmas season. In addition, Rev. Roderick K. Burton, the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and many others contacted Father Weber in the fire aftermath.

Father Weber met Rev. Burton at an ecumenical prayer service at St. Justin Martyr Parish, Father Weber's former pastorship, after the church arsons in fall 2015. Rev. Burton is pastor at New Northside Missouri Baptist Church, which was among the churches damaged in the arsons.

Meanwhile, Rabbinical Association president Rabbi James M. Bennett offered to assist St. Monica "in any way we can."

"To have this happen to the Nativity scene during Christmas week ... saddens us greatly," Rabbi Bennett wrote in a letter to Father Weber the day after the arson. "On behalf of the Jewish community of St. Louis, we extend our support and fellowship to your parishioners and the whole St. Monica's community. We are so sorry the year ended with this terrible event and hope that the new year will find the parish quickly back to normal."

According to Father Weber, initial plans call for the cleanup to be completed by the middle of January, with the earliest building availability by the Jan. 21-22 weekend. That estimate depends on what's found in the cleanup.

The altar might be a total loss. The marble skirting was warped, and a corner of the 4-inch granite top appeared as if a sledge hammer had been taken to it; it broke up when water came into contact with the super-heated material as firefighters extinguished the blaze. Except for a two-inch-by-two-inch square, the altar cloth burned away, but miraculously, the altar stone, which contains a relic, came out unscathed.

Steve Sallwasser, the son of a parishioner, described the altar destruction as "a violation. It's like they violated our most sacred symbol. The altar that was destroyed represents Calvary. The resurrection and Calvary all happened in one place. That's what happens on the altar."

The Lectionary and Missal might be salvageable, but the missalettes and about 500 hardcover hymnals were ruined. In addition, the normally white statues — including Jesus on the crucifix — sported a salt-and-pepper look, vestments needed to be cleaned and the walls, stations, pews, floors and stain-glass windows needed a good scrubbing. The fire remediation started immediately, and the building smelled of cleaner with a hint of soot within 24 hours of the arson. Industrial-strength fans ran continuously.

The 25-year-old Martin Ott pipe organ must be disassembled, inspected and cleaned, but the church's handbells and choir chimes escaped damage. The full choir and bell choir performed at Mass on New Year's Day. Father Weber commended musical director Heather Martin Cooper and seminarian Greg Siemer, a parishioner, for their yeoman work in organizing Masses at the school.

Fortuitously, a renovation 11 years ago eliminated combustible flooring around the altar and throughout the church, with tile replacing carpeting. The arsonist piled the ambo and presider's chair atop the wooden nativity set at the foot of the altar, presumably as kindling, but otherwise there was little to burn surrounding the altar; the fire was contained there.

Maintenance man Fred Jones, who has worked for 25 years at St. Monica, was the hero of the day. Although the fire alarms at St. Monica are extremely sensitive, at times set off by incense in Masses, he wasted no time in investigating the cause of this alarm at about 5:30 p.m. Dec. 27. An orange glow in the otherwise dark church confirmed the worst, and Jones waited outside to wave firefighters inside.

After the fire was extinguished, Father Weber secured the Blessed Sacrament from the Adoration Chapel. Later, he and vicar general Msgr. Mark Rivituso secured the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle.

"You are the church," Father Weber repeated in the homily. "Yes, that building at the top of the hill is our church building, (but) you fill the church, the church that brings us together, the church that celebrates the sacraments. the church which makes Christ present in this part of St. Louis County." 

>> Altar disposition

The altar at St. Monica Church suffered extensive damage in the arson Dec. 27, but it wasn't a total loss. The altar stone, which contains a relic, survived intact and will be used in a new altar or reused in the repaired existing altar, according to archdiocesan building and real estate director Randy Rathert. If the existing altar is repaired, the large 4-inch thick granite stone altar top and some of the marble panels skirting the front will be replaced with new stone, and the remaining stone will be cleaned and reused. Any portions of the existing altar that aren't re-used will be disposed of in accordance with canon law. 

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