GREENDALE -- A fire at St. Alphonsus Church in Greendale late Saturday night forced the pastor to call off all church services on Christmas Day. Many found out just minutes before church was supposed to begin.
The fire at St. Alphonsus Church was first reported shortly after midnight on Christmas, a little more than an hour after the church's 10:00 p.m. Mass. Officials say the fire was centered on the north side of the building, under some of the school's classrooms. The church itself sustained smoke damage.
Just as parishioners showed up for 11:00 a.m. Christmas Day Mass, they were told to turn back around. "The parking lot was so empty. I expected to look for a parking spot and I looked and said 'what happened?'" one parishioner said. "I haven't been to church for awhile, because I've been sick. Then when I do come, they won't let me in," another parishioner said.
The Greendale Fire Department responded to the fire early Sunday morning. St. Alphonsus pastor Father Alan Jurkus said the majority of the damage is behind the altar. "It was so very quick, and nobody knows what caused it at this point. The church has a lot of water damage, and it just reeks of smoke. We had our three kings and our camels for next week, and they're not going to make it. They're toast," Father Jurkus said.
On Christmas morning, Greendale firefighters and the state fire marshal were trying to pinpoint the cause of the fire, and determine whether it was intentionally set, or purely an accident.
St. Alphonsus Church parishioner Chris Bucket heard the sirens and shot amateur video of the fire early Sunday morning. Bucket and his family have attended the church for years, spending time their each Sunday - but that wasn't an option this Christmas Day. "The entrance where we go into church is where all the smoke was pouring out. I doubt they are going to have services there for quite awhile, based on what I saw last night," Bucket said.
The fire occurred just after the church announced its new fundraising effort. "We were just going to start next week the collection for refurbishing the church," Father Jurkus said.
Father Jurkus says there will be church next Sunday. If the church isn't ready for Mass by then, church services will be moved into the gym.
The fire remains under investigation.