By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2005
The original monastery building constructed of pine in 1944 by monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit burned to the ground March 31 in a fire believed started by lightning.
While there were no serious injuries, valuable goods and an irreplaceable part of the monastery’s history were lost in the fire, which began just after 7 a.m. while the community was at Mass. Nurse Theresa Clark, working in the infirmary overlooking the old monastery, was the first to smell the smoke and phoned 911.
Father Luke Kot, OCSO, 94, who helped found the monastery in 1944, said the monks lived in the pine-board monastery for 16 years from December 1944 to December 1960 when the permanent monastery was completed.
At its peak in 1957, 97 monks lived in the building, the monk said. It once had dormitories on the second floor, a chapel and an infirmary and an additional wing for novices. Many of the senior monks studied there as novices, made their professions of vows there and were ordained to the priesthood there.
Although not a main building now, the pine-board monastery still housed a carpentry shop, which held tools and a number of table saws, and the stained-glass studio of Father Methodius Telnack, OCSO, where stained-glass windows have been designed for many churches of the archdiocese and others around the country. Irreplaceable drawings of window designs were lost. Two monks, Father Matt and Father Methodius, had their quarters there and all their personal effects were lost.
Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler, OCSO, was visiting monasteries in Venezuela at the time of the fire, but has been in touch with the monastery since the fire by phone and e-mail.
Clark said when she came to work at a quarter to seven she saw nothing amiss.
However, shortly after seven, as she bent down to turn on a television set in the second-floor infirmary, a strong smell of smoke wafted through an open window.
Although it was pouring rain and not fully light, when she looked out, she could see a wall of smoke between the infirmary and the old monastery. She and another worker rushed to close all the windows to the area, which serves frail and infirm monks, and she called 911 and notified Brother Mark Dohle, OCSO, infirmarian, who was in the church at Mass.
By the time she got downstairs to direct the fire department, flames were visible.
Despite heavy rain, the blaze took three hours to bring under control and required seven engine companies, an aerial ladder company and a rescue unit, according to Rockdale County Fire Chief Henry Argo. Twenty-five firefighters worked the fire.
“It was one of the biggest fires I’ve ever seen . . . It was an inferno,” Father Anthony Delisi, OCSO, said.
When the pine boards were cut and placed in the building in 1944, the timbers were still green, Father Anthony said. “It’s that old Georgia lighter and it really burns.”
As prior, Father Anthony was in charge while the abbot was away and was the principal celebrant at Mass.
“There was a tremendous storm during Mass. The whole area through here was straddled with lightning. It is presumed lightning was the cause,” he said, although a fire investigation is underway. He was told of the fire as Mass was ending and told the congregation, before rushing over to the infirmary to observe and to pray a rosary.
“Right now we have to get past the shock stage,” he said later. “Then think what can we do next.”
“Everything is gone . . . It will have to be leveled to the ground,” he said. “There is a possibility of finding a few tools, (but) I would probably call it a 99 percent (loss).”
While he reflected that the building was no longer practical and monks knew it would have to be demolished, it held precious memories.
“I think many of us were saying it had to come down sooner or later under the circumstances,” he said. However, “many of us have many memories. We entered there. We had novitiate there. Some were ordained there. I was ordained in the chapel there . . . What went up (in flames) more than anything else is our memories and then the stained-glass department.”
Still, he said, “there must have been angels there surrounding it, guarding that smoke,” since despite the roaring fire the monastery, particularly the infirmary, did not have to be evacuated and the damage was confined to that one building.
“It was providential the way it happened. You can’t praise the firemen enough for what they did,” Father Anthony said. “It makes you proud of Rockdale County and their whole system.”
In recent years, he noted, the monastery, which has its own water system, also became part of the Rockdale County water system as a backup in case of fire.
“That backup system saved it,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for that, how many more buildings might have gone?”
Chief Argo, who lives nearby and was the first firefighter to arrive, said one wing was already engulfed in flames. He called all but two companies in Rockdale to the scene and was grateful there were no serious injuries.
One firefighter was transported to the hospital, but has since returned to duty, he said.
Despite the hookup to the county’s water supply, there were still challenges getting enough water on the fire quickly enough, he said. Part of it was the head start the fire got, part was the old, wooden building itself, and part was the diameter of the water mains on the property and concern about over-pressurizing the mains.
Still, “the connection to our county main system helped us greatly and helped us keep it from spreading,” the chief said. He added, “We had great assistance from the monks. I want to say how impressed I was with their willingness to help us and advise us.”
Rockdale County Water Department staff also came to the scene to help. Following the fire “we are looking at the water situation at the facility to make sure any problems we found we remediate,” the chief said.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but lightning was occurring before and during the fire.
“We did have severe lightning in the area. At several points I had my firefighters take shelter and at one point had to take the aerial ladder down,” Chief Argo said.
“I’m personally and professionally thankful it wasn’t any worse,” he commented.
Father Charles Zell, OCSO, 93, who worked in the carpentry shop for many years, watched the fire from a wheelchair in the infirmary where he now resides.
“I’m sad to see the shop gone. It’s a sad day, but what are you going to do? Fire has a way of destroying things—years and years of memories.”
As the monks built the permanent monastery and abbey church in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Father Charles crafted a great deal of furniture, including desks and wardrobes for every monk, and pews and choir stalls for the church. He built the forms that were used when concrete was poured to build the church.
“I knew every inch of that building because I made the forms,” he said. “It was quite an experience.”
In a letter to supporters, the abbot said, “the loss of the old monastery is a blow on a number of levels.”
Father Methodius “suffered the loss of his studio and glass shop where he had lovingly created and crafted many, many beautiful windows over the past 50 years. Particularly sad is the loss of the original drawings, which are irreplaceable,” he said.
The monks also lost the sand-casting studio where original designs were cast that were sold at the abbey gift shop. Many monks, himself included, worked there when they first arrived as observers and novices under the direction of Father Bob, who crafted all the molds, Abbot Francis Michael said.
“He made many different beautiful pieces over the years … They are all collectors pieces now as Father Bob is in our infirmary and no longer able to create more of them.”
“One of the most costly losses was surely our carpenter shop which, besides many specialized tools, had a dozen or more large professional saws,” he said.
Father Charles “our carpenter and a really fine craftsman for most of his monastic life . . . made almost all of our wooden furniture including desks and wardrobes, doors and tables, pews and choir stalls.”
“I suspect many of our seniors in the infirmary, which looks out just 30 yards away to the old original monastery, must have been looking on with poignant prayer . . . Though in the end just a wooden building it housed many a precious memory for most of us . . . It will always be holy ground for me.”
It will take “a bit of time to calculate the effects of its absence,” the abbot said. “It was insured so that will be dealt with and we will discuss as a community when I return how to proceed and what needs to be replaced … God, of course, in His goodness always brings good and unforeseen grace out of any tragedy great or small. So we will eagerly strain to listen to His word in all this.”