LAFFERTY - The familiar chime of the bell at St. Mary Catholic Church rang out through the village one final time at 2 p.m. Wednesday, nearly 30 minutes after the building had begun to burn.
Belmont County fire dispatchers were alerted at 1:35 p.m. that smoke had been spotted coming from the building's bell tower. Despite the efforts of multiple fire departments that responded to the call, that steeple collapsed into the structure about an hour later as flames roared through the roof.
Pat DeFrancis, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Steubenville, said the church was a total loss. She noted, however, that the Rev. Frederick C. Kihm was able to save a few items from the building. Among them were the blessed sacrament, some sacred vessels, lectionaries, vestments and some records - "all he could carry in one trip." She said the pastor and the church bookkeeper were in an adjacent building when the blaze broke out. In addition, two men had been working on the roof at the back of the church throughout the day, but DeFrancis said no one was hurt as a result of the fire.
DeFrancis said church officials on Wednesday had no idea what had caused the fire. Members of the Lafferty Volunteer Fire Department remained on the scene for several hours and could not be reached for comment regarding the cause at press time.
"Monsignor Kurt H. Kemo, diocesan administrator in the absence of a bishop, planned to immediately contact all the pastors in the diocese to pray for the people of St. Mary's," DeFrancis said. "This is such a sad time for them. Many people were married there and baptized their children there. ...
"It was just a great shock for the pastor and a great loss for the people and the community," she added.
Photo by Zach Compston
Only charred walls remain in the wake of the fire, but the Rev. Frederick C. Kihm retrieved a few items from the church as it burned. No one was injured in the blaze.
The church, located atop a hill at 42881 Church St., was founded in 1917, and the building was completed in 1919. It served as a hub of the community, which once had a Catholic population large enough to require a parochial school. Today, DeFrancis said, about 135 families regularly attend Mass at St. Mary's.
"They are a very loyal congregation," she said, noting members had renovated the church several times over the last nine decades and had recently ordered new carpet for the front of the church, where the fire started. "The people were very proud of their church there."
Neighbors and parishioners cried on the street as the fire burned Wednesday. After the flames were out, many stopped by to take some final photos of the place that had been their spiritual home.
This Sunday and in the coming weeks, DeFrancis said, all the members of St. Mary's are welcome to attend services at any of the churches in the diocese. She noted St. Paul Church in Flushing and St. Mary Church in St. Clairsville might be convenient sites for them to visit.
Other nearby Catholic churches include St. Joseph in Fairpoint, St. Stanislaus in Maynard and St. Anthony and St. Joseph in Bridgeport.
DeFrancis acknowledged that the diocese had expected to close St. Mary in Lafferty in the coming years as the population and number of available priests declined. She said those plans were developed under former Bishop Daniel Conlon, and it was anticipated the Lafferty church would be merged with St. Mary's in St. Clairsville. She did not indicate any timeline for that change had been established.
A bystander on Wednesday said the fire scene was "eerily quiet," with greenish-yellow smoke pouring from the bell tower. The witness said firefighters battling the blaze quickly became overheated, forcing them to take frequent breaks to drink water provided by the Salvation Army's mobile canteen. The event culminated when the bell tower collapsed, sending flames into the sky and blowing out the stained glass windows.