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A day to remember: When St. Mary's Catholic Church burned

Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 7:17 am

Maxine Ray Stovall remembers well that Thursday 20 years ago that she watched St. Mary's Catholic Church burn.

Stovall had made it her new church home recently after moving from Indianapolis to practice veterinary medicine. She said she had visited many churches before choosing St. Mary's, but this one felt right. From the first Sunday she attended she felt welcomed and was invited that day to dinner at a parishioner's home.

“I was very, very attached to that building, to the architecture, just to the sense of that being my first church that I had been to in Fort Wayne,” Stovall said.

After joining the church she quickly became involved. With the help of her father, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she worked at refinishing the cabinets that housed church pastor the Rev. Tom O'Connor's vestments in a special room behind the church's altar. It was her personal contribution in helping with the church's restoration project.

It had only been in March 1993 that she had hung the last refinished cabinet door. Each door and drawer she had taken to Indianapolis, where her father had stripped and refinished them.

So on that Thursday 20 years ago, the fire hit Stovall on a very personal level. She first heard about it when one of her clients came in and asked her if she knew her church was on fire. They flipped on the TV in the Southtown Veterinary Hospital waiting room, and Stovall watched with horror at the unfolding disaster. She quickly finished up with her patient, grabbed a cat carrier and headed for the church.

At that time, O'Connor's cat was one of her clients and her top concern. She knew Father Tom, as he was called, would have his hands full with the church so she figured she could take T.C., aka Tom's Cat, off his hands.

T.C. was less than happy to see her. Afterall she was the one who gave him his shots, but she was able to corral him in the rectory. Afterward she stood in the rain and watched her church burn down. She said it was amazing to watch the expressions on Father Tom's face as he watched the fire.

“He looked like the weight of the world was both on his shoulders and about to be taken off of his shoulders,” Stovall said.

After an hour or two she said she could see he knew the building was gone and he was planning the next phase: where he would hold Mass on Sunday and how he would keep the St. Mary's Soup Kitchen going.

“It still affects me, just to think back to that time,” Stovall said.

Twenty years later one of the first things a visitor notices in Stovall's home are the pieces from leaded stained-glass windows that she had built into her living room windows. They are from some of the original windows in St. Mary's. In the dining room, a large cabinet along the wall is another relic from the old St. Mary's building that she bought at auction. Her extensive garden has ornamental stonework pieces from the church artfully arranged in the flowerbeds. Stovall said she still has two stained-glass windows in storage that she is trying to incorporate into her house.

She is philosophical about the loss of the old church building. As a newer member 20 years ago she had just started to realize the cost of maintaining the old structure, and she knows the current church is a better fit for the congregation and its community focus.

“But church was gorgeous, that church was beautiful,” Stovall said.