by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Like the other Sisters at the Mission House Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sister Mariana Disciple of the Divine Master, PJC, was sound asleep in the early morning of Aug. 15.
“I heard something far away, and I awoke scared,” she said.
It was the fire alarm, ringing at 12:30 a.m.
At first, she was slightly confused. Was someone in the chapel?
The convent of the Fraternity the Poor of Jesus Christ, at 2226 Troup Ave. in Kansas City, Kansas, has a beautiful chapel.
“We use incense,” she said. “Everytime we use incense for adoration and the Mass, [the alarm] goes off. I thought I had to turn it off.”
So, she went downstairs to check the alarm control panel, next to the chapel on the first floor.
“It said: ‘First Floor South,’” she said. She turned it off, but the alarm began to sound again.
“I thought, ‘Something is wrong,’” she said.
She was right. She looked down the first floor hallway and saw hazy smoke. She ran back to the second floor to where the five Poor of Jesus Christ Sisters and one visiting Dominican Sister were beginning to stir.
“Fire, fire!” she said. “Call 911!”
They all quickly donned their habits and fled the building. Sister Mariana, curious as to the fire’s location, opened the basement door — and was nearly overwhelmed by a blast of thick, toxic smoke.
Coughing, she closed the door and made her way outside. As she passed the common room, she saw huge flames outside shooting up from below.
It didn’t take long
While waiting on their neighbor’s lawn, the first three Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department trucks rolled up within three minutes after the Sisters fled the convent.
Then, more trucks arrived . . . and more trucks. The firefighters vigorously attacked the blaze and soon had it subdued. They even rescued the Sisters’ cat Missy, who in a panic ran into the basement.
Once they were certain it was safe, the firefighters allowed the Sisters back inside.
There, they opened all the windows on the second floor to air out the building and tried to get at least a bit of fitful, smoky rest before they began the dreadful task of recovery.
With daybreak, the Sisters headed for the basement, which contained the laundry room and served as the order’s storage space. There, they kept much of what they needed for their ministries to the neighborhood poor and homeless, as well as their own food.
Everything in the basement was destroyed. Black soot coated everything, and the heat melted many of the supplies.
The source of the fire was an overheated ballast (current regulator) in an overhead florescent light, said Leon Roberts, archdiocesan consultant for construction and real estate. It melted and sparked a fire on some plastic and clothes below.
The fire caused about $80,000 worth of damage. An adjuster from Catholic Mutual Group was on the scene within 12 hours and a claim has been filed.
“Our basement is used as a food pantry for families we help,” said Sister Magdalena of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the custodian — or superior — of the community.
“We also go out to the homeless twice a week, and we lost everything we take to them — clothes, personal hygiene products,” she continued. “We lost a freezer and refrigerator, coolers and plastic cups. “We lost the equipment we use to make soup.”
Only in America
Except for Sister Magdalena, all the Sisters of the Fraternity the Poor of Jesus Christ are from Brazil or Paraguay. The fire was a new experience — and not just because they’d never experienced a house fire.
The first surprise was the rapid response of the fire department, with lots of equipment and firefighters. Where the Sisters come from, emergency services are slower.
The second surprise was insurance. Generally, people in the Sisters’ home countries don’t have insurance to aid recovery.
And the third surprise was the commando-like response by volunteer Knights of Columbus and the disaster recovery firm SERVPRO® of Leavenworth and NW Wyandotte County. Professional disaster recovery firms do not exist where the Sisters come from.
“Padre Gilson (the order’s founder) called me,” said Sister Magdalena, and said, ‘So, you’ve got a whole lot of people together to clean up?’
“And I said, ‘No, we have insurance, and there are all these people and a company coming to do the cleaning.’
“He couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Only in the United States!’”
Volunteer Knights had been doing handyman work at the convent and, when one showed up that morning, he quickly made some calls to brother Knights. Sister Magdalena called others.
SERVPRO® did the lion’s share, but Knights from Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Ascension in Overland Park, and St. John Paul II Parish in Olathe joined in the cleanup of the basement. Dave Leiker, a member of Holy Trinity and president of the Charities Aid Foundation of the Knights of Columbus, also helped.
“Through the Knights’ emergency disaster aid program, we’re assisting with food and clothing, to give them money to replace those things,” he said.
“I saw it on the news [that morning],” said Paul Goode, sales representative with SERVPRO®. “I said to myself, ‘My brothers in Christ need help,’ so I got in my car and came here.”
Goode is a Knight of Columbus and a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Louisburg; Dan Thorman, the owner of the company, is a Knight as well and a member of St. Peter Parish in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Once we clean the structure, we’ll come in and [further] assess what needs to be removed,” said Goode. “We’ve done preliminary demolition, and we’ll do a deep clean and assess what needs to be reconstructed.”