On March 18, 2002, the sanctuary of the St. Michael Catholic Church was destroyed by fire. St. Michael is a Roman Catholic church in Wheaton, Illinois, within easy walking distance of the Presbyterian church where I once served as pastor.
The fire at St. Michael occurred early in the week, set by an arsonist on Sunday night. The following Sunday was Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. I called Father Don on Monday morning, after the fire department had finally put out the fire, and I not only expressed my concern, but also offered the use of my church to his congregation.
I didn’t know exactly what I was offering or what my offer really meant. We already had three services on Sunday mornings, and I have no idea how we could have accommodated the six or seven masses that St. Michael offered each weekend. More concerning, I didn’t consult with anyone at my church before making the offer. I didn’t even consider what it might mean for a Catholic mass to be celebrated in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church. John Calvin might have turned over in his grave.
Looking back, I know I made the offer because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
Father Don was relatively new to St. Michael, having arrived only eight months before the fire. I didn’t know him well, but he and I had officiated at a funeral service together. And I had promised that day to give him a call so that we could get to know each other better.
All day Monday, Father Don appeared on local news channels answering the same questions about the fire. He was quoted again in the newspapers the following day. And I must say, the more I listened, and the more I read, the more impressed I became with him. I found myself telling everyone what a fine colleague in ministry he was. More than once, I was moved to tears by his words.
Father Don remained remarkably strong throughout. Whatever he was feeling, what he projected was the authority that comes with being a parish priest, responsible for his flock. He seemed to know exactly what to say. In my mind, he rose to the occasion in a way I would have wanted to in similar circumstances.
Over and over, what I heard him say was, “The church is more than a building.” I learned those words in Sunday school, of course, and I have spoken those words more than once in a children’s sermon. But there was Father Don, looking into the television cameras and saying the same thing, with his burned-out church in the background.
And in that moment I realized that no one really understands what those words mean until the building you once called a church is a smoking ruin.
At some point that week a large tent appeared in the St. Michael parking lot, and Palm Sunday worship occurred there. As did Easter worship the following Sunday. Eventually daily mass was offered in the St. Michael school gymnasium, and a nearby Catholic church offered worship space as well. John Calvin could remain at rest.
I called Father Don again in the days that followed to ask how he was holding up, and he said, “You know, I had been wondering why I was assigned here. And now I know. I was sent here to build a church.” Again, that same sense of assurance that he was only doing what any other pastor would have done. He had come to Wheaton to build a church.
In the months that followed, St. Michael collected insurance money and added a $3.9 million fund-raising goal to rebuild the sanctuary. In the end, more than $6.2 million was pledged. Construction on the new church started on October 22, 2004.
Father Don will never know how much he affected my Palm Sunday sermon that year. While he remained calm and strong and resolute in front of the television cameras, I cried my way through my sermon that year.
What I remember saying to my congregation is that I could finally imagine, after all these years, Jesus riding that colt into Jerusalem, looking calm and strong and resolute.
He knew what his mission was. I’m sure of it. If he had ever wondered what he had come into the world to do, those thoughts must have been set aside. The disciples were confused about it all, of course, and the crowds would soon be chanting “crucify him!” But Jesus knew that day what he had come to do.
He too had come to build a church. Or at least to lay the foundation.