WOONSOCKET – When Tina Perkins answered the pounding on the rectory door, the pastor’s wife from St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
Flames had broken through the roof of the iconic granite church located at 74 Harris Ave., just 20 yards or so from the side door of the rectory.
“The firefighters were banging on the door, telling us to get the kids out of the house,” she said. “The back of the church was engulfed in flames. It got up into the roof and was coming through the rafters.”
Firefighters were summoned to the blaze just after 4:30 a.m. Wednesday by a 911 call which Perkins surmises must have been placed by a neighbor. The church has a fire alarm, she said, but it’s not hard-wired to the Woonsocket Fire Department.
“We didn’t hear it,” she said.
As the faint glow of dawn broke, the flames had been extinguished and smoke could be seen wafting from two charred gashes in the slate roof of the 70-year-old church. No one was injured.
But the damage was done, and it was extensive, said Woonsocket Fire Capt. Michael A. Morin, assistant state deputy fire marshal. He said the rear interior of the church was heavily damaged by fire, a floor had given way, and firefighters were worried that the main crossbeam that supports the peaked roof of the structure had also been compromised. The finished basement, used for church functions, was also flooded.
It took just a few hours for investigators to determine that the cause of the fire was accidental. The state fire marshal blamed the fire on leftover coal and ashes from an incense burner placed in a plastic bucket. The ashes had apparently been left in the church the previous evening, following a service in honor of church’s patron saint.
In an eerie coincidence, the fire happened on the very day the Ukrainian Orthodox church celebrates the Feast of St. Michael – Nov. 21.
“People are going to be heartbroken,” said Father Anthony Perkins, the pastor, as he stood in the morning chill outside the church. “They had a lot of love for this building, a lot of memories, a lot of history.”
The church was built in 1942 by the sons and daughters of Ukrainian immigrants who arrived in Woonsocket just after the turn of the century, said Father Perkins. Today, the church has over 100 member families and is actually growing, drawing newcomers from outside the traditional ethnic base.
It’s one of two Ukrainian churches named for St. Michael that are located within a block of each other. The other is St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church at 384 Blackstone St., also a unique example of the city’s religious architecture.
St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church is one of the most striking and majestic church edifices in the city. The landmark structure is easily distinguished by its twin granite towers topped with golden, onion-style domes typical of Eastern European religious design. Although the interior framework of the building is wood, and the rafters, as Tina Perkins put it, are “like kindling,” the exterior of the building is made from sturdy granite block. The roof is black slate.
Look close and you’ll notice the slate shingles on one side of the roof aren’t the same size as those on the other. That’s because the church was built during a period of World War II rationing and construction crews – church members themselves – used whatever materials they could scrape together, said Father Perkins.
We will rebuild,” vowed Father Perkins. “It’s a very strong community.”
Until then, the father said services will be relocated to the rectory building where he and his wife reside with their four children. He says there’s a hall inside that’s big enough to hold services.
As Father Perkins spoke to a reporter, the porch of the Victorian rectory had been temporarily converted into a repository for some of the church’s most symbolic assets – an ornate, hand-carved lectern bearing a portrait of St. Michael, the metal baptismal font, a candle urn, an altar tabernacle, and many other items.
Father Perkins credited firefighters with saving the treasured artifacts.
“As soon as they could get into the church they started bringing stuff out that they knew was important to us,” he said. “The fire was still burning and they were going into the building to bring things out.”
Father Perkins said he was grateful that no one was injured in the fire and that, despite the horrific damage to the structure, it is salvageable, thanks to the efforts of firefighters.
As crews were winding down operations, one firefighter spontaneously acknowledged the success of the operation, saying churches, by nature, are notoriously vulnerable once a fire gets started inside them. In their very design, churches are open, airy chasms where fires quickly spread.
“You know how many churches are saved in fires?” he said. “Not many.”