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Thomas Aquinas College’s New England Chapel
Spared in Easter Morning Fire
“You could have lost the whole church very easily.
Somebody was watching over you.”
NORTHFIELD, MA — A small fire broke out in the servers’ sacristy of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College, New England, early on Easter morning. By God’s grace, however, Head Chaplain Rev. Greg Markey and the Northfield Fire Department were able to contain the blaze quickly, thus preventing serious damage.
Firefighters believe that the cause of the fire stems from the use of incense at Saturday night’s Easter Vigil. Smoldering embers were given new life when Fr. Markey — arriving at the Chapel to prepare for Sunday’s Easter morning Mass — opened the sacristy door, allowing fresh oxygen to enter the room.
“I opened the door, and an enormous wall of dense black smoke came billowing out,” the chaplain recalls. “I grabbed the fire extinguisher and rushed into the room and went after the fire. It was coming through the floorboards and coming through the walls.”
After exhausting one fire extinguisher without taming the blaze, Fr. Markey called 911 — and then, while waiting for the firefighters to arrive, he found another fire extinguisher and returned to the sacristy to do whatever he could. “Between the time I called and the time that they were able to get water on it, it was probably about 20 minutes,” he says. “And it was a pretty frightening 20 minutes!”
The Northfield Fire Department arrived and swiftly subdued the blaze. “We are deeply grateful for the firefighters who risked their lives and sacrificed their Easter morning to save our chapel,” says Fr. Markey. “Compared to what it could have been, the damage is minimal,” Deputy Fire Chief David Quinn Jr. told the Greenfield Recorder, adding that Fr. Markey’s intervention “helped a great deal.”
The college’s students and faculty, meanwhile, lost little time in adapting Olivia Music Hall for the celebration of the liturgy, with Easter morning Mass delayed only a few hours. Chapel Assistant Hélène (Augros ’92) Froula assembled a vestment for Fr. Markey in record time, and students fetched a print of the Chapel’s beloved icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help from the Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati Student Center. There was even a tabernacle on hand, recently culled from a nearby, shuttered convent.
Although the Chapel will require extensive cleaning and smoke mitigation, college officials are hopeful that it will be ready in time for Commencement on May 13. The building sustained little structural damage outside the sacristy, but heavy clouds of smoke caused cosmetic damage, and a heavy layer of ash now covers the sanctuary.
“We have really amazing vestments here, with all kinds of gold threads, and they’re damaged; the new paint job, with the gold leafing and the stenciling that was done on the walls, will probably have to be cleaned and touched up,” Fr. Markey reflects.
He is quick, however, to emphasize his gratitude for God’s providence in sparing the building from more extensive damage. Fr. Markey recalls the first responders’ incredulity at the Chapel’s survival: “The police chief said to me, ‘You could have lost the whole church very easily. Somebody was watching over you.’”
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About Thomas Aquinas College
A four-year, co-educational institution with campuses in California and Massachusetts, Thomas Aquinas College has developed over the past 50 years a solid reputation for academic excellence in the United States and abroad. It is highly ranked by organizations such as The Princeton Review, U. S. News, and Kiplinger. At Thomas Aquinas College all students acquire a broad and fully integrated liberal education. The college offers one, four-year, classical curriculum that spans the major arts and sciences. Instead of reading textbooks, students read the original works of the greatest thinkers in Western civilization — the Great Books — in all the major disciplines: mathematics, natural science, literature, philosophy, and theology. The academic life of the college is conducted under the light of the Catholic faith and flourishes within a close-knit community, supported by a vibrant spiritual life. Graduates consistently excel in the many world-class institutions at which they pursue graduate degrees in fields such as law, medicine, business, theology and education. www.thomasaquinas.edu.