St. Stephens Steeple Burns after Lightening Strikes
by Karen Mahoney
Members held back tears, shook their heads, glanced solemnly at, or gently traced their hands over the large copper cross that used to sit atop the steeple of St. Stephens Catholic Church on S. Howell Street. Lying on its side along the staircase of the Family Center, the scarred cross was a sad reminder of the fire that destroyed the steeple of the parish after lightening hit at approximately 5:45 p.m. last Thursday.
Parishioners gathered for weekend Masses at the Center’s Race Hall for the first time since the fire. Despite plans to build a new church in Oak Creek, the historic church holds with it, memories of weddings, funerals, first communions, countless Masses; and celebrations. The fire deeply affected members, some who grew up in the parish.
“Well, we are here and we are going to get through it,” said longtime parishioner Dorothy Jakubiak. “I’ve brought a lot of Kleenex in my purse today, just in case.”
“It is a real shocker,” said Frank Haybeck, member since 1968. Shaking his head at the downed cross, he said, “We weren’t sure what happened after the lighting struck—it’s quite hard to see this.”
Parish Trustee Joe Tripoli was meeting with Fr. Richard Liska in his office when the storm hit.
“We didn’t know what happened at first after the loud explosion,” he said. “The first thing we knew was that the storm took out the entire phone system at the parish and the hall. The windows were really shaking and we lost our power.”
Fr. Richard Liska’s heart began to race after the explosive strike caused his office windows to rattle.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, something just got hit,’” he said.
After looking outside toward the church, Fr. Liska noted that he saw no damage to the steeple at all, and continued his meeting. While his secretary was on her cell phone to report the outage with the phone company, the rectory doorbell rang.
“A couple had come to the door and told me that the church was on fire,” he said. “We went out and sure enough it was on fire. We could hear the sirens in the distance, but it seemed like it was taking forever for them to get here.”
As Fr. Liska watched the fire rage through the steeple, he recalled someone asking him whether he was going to retrieve the Eucharist from the Tabernacle.
“I just said, ‘What?’ I mean the building was burning,” he explained. “I then told them that Jesus could take care of himself.”
Moments later though, Fr. Liska ran towards the stairs to the church entrance after observing a firefighter prepare to strike the door with his ax.
“I ran up and said, ‘Wait! I have a key,’ but I was fumbling for the key in my pocket and finally I got it out and opened the door,” he said. “Then the firefighter wanted to know how to get up into the bell tower—I started to give him instructions and he just said, ‘Can you show me?’”
As he led the firefighter up the smoky staircase to the burning steeple, Fr. Liska nervously began searching his pockets and the wall to find the key to the bell tower door, but he couldn’t find them.
“I got him to the door and wouldn’t you know it, the key was in the door,” he said laughing, “Needless to say, someone is in trouble for that.”
After the priest returned to the sanctuary and noticed that he was not in danger, he secured the Eucharist and went out the back door thinking it was safer. He had no idea that some parishioners observed him entering the church, but never saw him come out, leading to concerns for his safety.
“People were saying, ‘Father went into the burning church but he didn’t come out,” he said, “So I walked up behind them and scared them just a bit.”
While Fr. Liska appeared jovial following the devastating fire that its damage extent remains uncertain, he trusts that God is sending them each a message.
“You know I don’t know about the organ or the carillon-if they are working, as we don’t have power yet,” he said. “But I have had time to think about a lot since this happened. For one thing, last week I spoke about Jesus being the cornerstone and that we had a 1908 cornerstone after the first fire here at St. Stephens. Little did I know that we would be part of living history with having the third fire here in a century.”
The many difficult discussions leading to the decision to build a new church and hanging on to the old seemed to have been decided by God, admitted Fr. Liska, and continued that the Lord seems to be speeding up the transition to break ground for the new parish.
Last week at Mass, Fr. Liska reflected on the Gospel, which emphasized not letting your hearts be troubled or afraid, and compared it to this week’s Gospel where Jesus said he would not leave us orphans.
Some members asked me the next day whether I saw the cross on the stairs and what I thought about it,” he said. “I said that God is showing us by saving this cross that He is still present and still leading us.”
The copper cross was erected after the fire in 1926 and each time Fr. Liska approaches the cross, he admits to having tears welling in his eyes.
“It isn’t tears of sadness, but tears of awe,” he said. “We are planning to take this cross with us to our new location, and I think that its survival is a message to us that the Lord is correcting our vision and getting our focus back on where it needs to be.
Fr. Liska estimates that it will be at least two weeks before the congregation will be able to move back into the church.
“Fortunately, we had no interior damage other than water,” he said. “Except for the steeple, which will be capped, because we won’t be replacing the steeple, it will be hard to notice that we had a fire here.”