A sacred religious icon that legends say has survived Huttite blades, Tartan arrows and Swedish invasions experienced another brush with destruction on Thursday evening in Crescent City.
The Black Madonna, a religious icon painted by St. Luke in the 14th century that’s associated with not only near-destruction but also miracles, narrowly escaped another close call when an accidental fire broke out in the sacristy at
St. Joseph Catholic Church. The icon, an official replica made in Poland that is currently on a world tour, was saved after it was carried away from the church when the fire was announced during a Thursday night service.
“The icon is reported to be responsible for many, many miracles,” Father Adam Kotas, pastor of St. Joseph, said. “People were there with pictures of their loved ones and were seeking the intercession of Our Lady. Afterward I gathered the people in the parish hall and said, ‘Here’s a miracle.’”
The fire, which started a little before 9 p.m., was caused after a lighter used to light incense was put back in a cabinet that subsequently caught fire. Kotas said that he was in the middle of delivering the sermon when people noticed smoke coming out of the sacristy, a room connected to the sanctuary where vestments and other items used in worship are kept.
At first everyone thought it was just the incense, Kotas said.
“I thought, ‘We must have had some powerful incense.’”
But then someone who discreetly went to see where all the smoke was coming from delivered a message to Kotas that the church was on fire.
“I went and opened the sacristy door and saw a fire — it was blazing!” Kotas said. “I immediately told everyone there is a fire in the church and to please evacuate. There was panic.”
Once the 300–400 parishioners were outside and the Black Madonna transported safely to the Knights of Columbus Hall across the street, a member of the congregation went back inside and put most of the flames out with a fire extinguisher, Kotas said.
Crescent City Fire Chief Steve Wakefield, who arrived on the scene with the fire department shortly afterward, said there’s no question that the lighter started the fire because it was all captured on video, courtesy of a new security camera system the church had installed.
“We watched the whole deal. It was kind of amazing,” Wakefield said. “A lady that prepares things in that room lit the incense they use in the service — she used one of those long BIC lighters to get it lit — and she put it back in the cabinet and shut the door. Pretty soon you see puffs of smoke coming out of the cabinet. We could actually see it during the video — the smoke gets heavier and heavier and then you see flames.”
Wakefield said most of the flames were put out when the fire department arrived, but smoke had filled the building, so after putting the remainder of the fire out firefighters brought in big fans to clear out the haze. Cathy Shiraki, who works at St. Joseph, said any damage is confined to the sacristy and that the rest of the church is generally just “smoked over.”
“We’re trying to get it cleaned up for service (today),” she said.
Kotas said Friday night Mass was canceled, but the church will be back to its regular schedule today.
Lee Birch, a member of the Knights of Columbus in Brookings who was in attendance on Thursday, said that he rushed up to the sacristy after Kotas warned everyone of the fire.
“There was a 10-feet-wide wall of flames. It went straight up in the air 4 feet,” Birch said. “It looked like an ocean wave on the top. It was unreal — I’ve never seen anything like it.”