Incense deemed cause of Northfield chapel fire

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 04-12-2023 8:21 PM

NORTHFIELD — A fire in a sacristy at Thomas Aquinas College was caused by incense left burning the night before Easter, according to Executive Director of College Relations Chris Weinkopf.

Deputy Fire Chief David Quinn Jr. said his department was dispatched on Sunday morning at roughly 7:51 a.m. to the fire, which was discovered by the Rev. Greg Markey, head chaplain, in the sacristy next to the altar at the Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel. Weinkopf, who spoke with Markey on Wednesday, said the incense that started the fire was not properly extinguished from the prior night’s Easter vigil, which was held at 11 p.m.

“He came in the next morning for Easter Sunday mass, and when he came in, he discovered the fire,” Weinkopf said of the priest. Markey opening the doors to the sacristy “provided a rush of fresh air and oxygen ... that kind of inflamed what had been smoldering there,” he continued.

“I opened the door, and an enormous wall of dense black smoke came billowing out,” the chaplain recalled in a statement released by the college Wednesday evening. “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.”

Between the priest’s use of a fire extinguisher to slow the fire’s spread and the quick work of responding firefighters, the fire was contained to the room of origin and deemed “under control” shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday, Quinn recapped. Markey’s efforts helped to “really minimize and contain the damage,” Weinkopf added.

“Between the time I called and the time that they were able to get water on it, it was probably about 20 minutes,” Markey said in the statement. “And it was a pretty frightening 20 minutes!”

“We pretty much got to it in a hurry, so compared to what it could have been, the damage is minimal,” Quinn said Sunday, similarly noting that the priest’s efforts “helped a great deal.”

The interior walls and floors were damaged by the blaze, but not heavily enough to necessitate major repairs or render the space unusable for long, Quinn said. He added Wednesday that it is unlikely that “there was any structural damage at all” to the chapel.

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“The biggest problem is that we got a lot of smoke damage in the rest of the building and that’s going to take some effort to clean,” Weinkopf commented, observing that the sacristy itself was “pretty badly damaged.”

“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,” Markey added in the statement.

Nobody was injured or trapped by the fire, according to Quinn.

“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,” the statement reads. “Chapel Assistant Hélène Froula assembled a vestment for Father Markey in record time, and students fetched a print of the chapel’s beloved icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help from the Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati Student Center. There was even a tabernacle on hand, recently culled from a nearby, shuttered convent.”

Weinkopf said while it is unclear what the cost of repairs will be, Thomas Aquinas College has hired a team to begin remediation efforts throughout the building with hopes of making the chapel fit for use by graduation on May 13. In the interim, the school will use Olivia Music Hall as a temporary chapel.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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