KEVIN LEININGER: St. Mary’s Catholic will bless two newly discovered relics from former church 25 years after devastating fire

Lightning struck St. Mary's Catholic Church on Sept. 2, 1993, sparking a fire that destroyed the structure. Two of its three steeple crosses have been discovered, however, and will be blessed during a special mass on the 25th anniversary of the blaze. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
The two restored crosses from the church destroyed by fire hang on either side of the entrance to the church dedicated in 1998. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
The News-Sentinel headline spoke for many after the 1993 file. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
The shell of the destroyed St. Mary's church following the 1993 fire. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
The current sanctuary is the fourth to serve the St. Mary's parish (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
The dedication stones representing all three of the previous St Mary's Catholic Church buildings are incorporated into the new structure. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
The Rev. Phillip Widmann
Kevin Leininger

Twenty-five years to the day after lightning from heaven sparked one of the most spectacular fires in Fort Wayne history, members of St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church will commemorate the event in prayer and by resurrecting iconic remnants of their destroyed sanctuary they thought had been lost forever.

“After the fire, we didn’t know these existed,” said the Rev. Phillip Widmann, who has served the congregation since 2004 and was as pleased as he was surprised to learn that two of the old church’s three steeple crosses were discovered in Martin Enterprises’ warehouse after the firm that demolished what was left after the fire ceased operations earlier this year. Those restored crosses have been installed on either side of the main entrance of the 20-year-old sanctuary at Lafayette Street and Jefferson Boulevard and will be blessed and dedicated during a special mass devoted to the woman for whom the congregation was named in 1848.

“It will be bittersweet. It wouldn’t be proper to ‘celebrate’ the burning of the biggest Gothic church in Fort Wayne, but we did ask (and receive) permission to hold a votive mass for our patron saint,” Widmann said — a decision that will transfer a service normally held Jan. 1 to the very day on which St. Mary’s previous sanctuary went up in a blaze visible for miles and on live television.

“The old walls crumbled, the brilliant windows shattered. But we your people remain,” reads the prayer by a parishioner composed for the occasion. “We are sent forth like our ancestors to live our faith in this world, in this time and place, holding fast to that which lasts . . . that we may cherish the memory of what has been lost but never cease to move forward, always seeking your love and light in the faces of those in need.”

Meeting that need has long been a mission for a congregation known for its soup kitchen, but whether St. Mary’s would continue as a church was by no means clear despite a $6.6 million insurance settlement. “There was a debate about whether we should rebuild,” Widmann said, noting St. Mary’s proximity to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the since-demolished St. Paul’s Catholic Church and his former congregation at St. Peter’s Catholic. “But the desire to do social work had not abated,” Widmann said, resulting in the dedication of the current $3.5 million facility in 1999 that includes plenty of functional, ground-level space for worship and social ministry alike. About $3 million was used to establish the St. Mary’s Heritage Fund, which provides aid to the poor throughout the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese.

In that regard, the decision to rebuild has been a blessing, Widmann said, even though the accompanying manpower needs for the relatively small, low-income parish remain daunting.

But St. Mary’s had known, and overcome, adversity long before that fateful day 25 years ago. Originally organized to serve 30 German-speaking families of St. Augustine’s Church, the first church was built for $1,700 in 1848 but had grown too small within a decade. St. Mary’s second, larger sanctuary cost $30,000 and was dedicated in 1857 but was destroyed by a boiler explosion and fire in 1886 that killed the janitor and a young girl on the sidewalk. The third St. Mary’s followed, and its three cross-topped spires stood for more than a century before falling in 1993.

Until recently, Widmann thought only the altar tabernacle had been salvaged from the ruins. After the 10:45 a.m. mass on Sept. 2, however, he and his flock will leave the sanctuary for the outer vestibule, where they will observe a moment of silence before reciting the prayer in remembrance “a time and a place long gone . . . But we your people remain.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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