You may have already read my first post about my high school chapel, but recent events made it worthy of a revisit.
On Friday, May 18th, at around 1:30 in the morning, the chapel caught fire. It continued burning for a couple hours, before finally being extinguished at around 4 AM. This fire was no small matter; it was a four alarm fire that brought responding officers from three additional municipalities. There were at least 168 firefighters who arrived to help. It was suspected, but (last I checked) unconfirmed, that the cause of the fire was electrical problems. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
In my previous post, I mentioned that I had some mixed feelings about the chapel space. Our chapel was renovated during my senior year of high school, and that was very hard for me personally. I loved how things had been before, and it took me a while to warm up to the new design. I still feel that the first version of the chapel was my true home, and I never quite connected as well with the new space. But when I heard that the chapel was so ravaged that it would need to be knocked down completely, I was forced to a standstill. I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that the very walls which housed me for four years would be gone. The roof that watched over me while I fell in love with Jesus and grew in devotion to Him would be gone. Every last physical remnant of the space where my faith started to have actual, personal, real meaning to me would be… gone.
When a tragedy hits somewhere holy, it always begs the question of “Well, where was God?” I don’t have a good answer; I don’t know where He was when the spark first caught. I don’t know where He was when the skylights melted through. I don’t know where He was when His house was turning into coal and ash. But I do know that I saw His signature in the remains. I know that He was not completely absent.
Many things were destroyed, yes, but some things were saved. First and foremost, the tabernacle was rescued by some brave firefighters. All of the stations of the cross were destroyed except the station where Jesus meets His mother, Mary – at a place called Mary Help of Christians, that’s a big deal. Some of the sisters have shared stories of their meaningful personal trinkets that accompanied their prayer books being spared, even though the books themselves were consumed. For example, Sister B talked about a butterfly pin that had sentimental value to her. A charred Bible was left open on a pew to the book of Job, serving as a poignant reminder of the nature of struggle and suffering.
There are many more pictures posted on social media. It was surreal to scroll through them all. Seeing tiny images of the destruction in two dimensions on my phone made it almost feel like someone had photoshopped it all, and that it hadn’t really happened. But it did, and now we have to move forward.
In June, I stepped back on campus for regularly scheduled adoration. Since the chapel was unavailable, we set up adoration outside. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was very pleased with what did happen. Gathered in a courtyard full of young people who were talking and laughing and playing games, and then praying and singing to the Lord, was incredible. It felt so wholesome and connected. I distinctly felt like I was in a modern oratory being watched over by Don Bosco. Whenever I think of Salesians now, this will be one of the most prominent memories I have. Being outdoors led to some great imagery in my prayers, as well. I was very strongly reminded of this verse:
“Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?” Matthew 6:26
I don’t know why our chapel burned down – but I know that God is with us even in the ashes. We have felt His presence in the protection that He granted the Sisters as the chapel blazed. We saw His signature in the wreckage when meaningful things seemed purposefully saved. We have seen Him working in the hearts of those who have chosen to donate to the Sisters to help them offset the cost of rebuilding. And most of all, we are grateful that His love never leaves us, even when physical things do.