Church and neighbors ‘in this together’ after devastating blaze destroys parish school

by Francesca Chapman
Posted 3/29/23

For the fifth Sunday in Lent, Father John Fisher, of Our Mother of Consolation parish, delivered his homily from an unusual location – the gym of Norwood-Fontbonne Academy.

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Church and neighbors ‘in this together’ after devastating blaze destroys parish school


For the fifth Sunday in Lent, Father John Fisher, of Chestnut Hill’s Our Mother of Consolation parish, had long been scheduled to tell the story of Jesus and his disciples journeying to Judea to raise dead Lazarus from his tomb. Yet the priest, speaking to parishioners less than a week after a three-alarm fire gutted OMC’s school and imperiled the adjacent church, found new relevance in the ancient scripture.

“As Jesus was saying, ‘Come out, Lazarus, come out from your grave,’” he is saying ‘Come out, OMC, and I will give you new life,’” Fisher told the congregation.

The priest delivered his homily from an unusual location – between two basketball hoops and under the championship banners in the gym of the Norwood-Fontbonne Academy, the private Catholic school around the corner from OMC. More than 100 parishioners gathered for a 9 a.m. service there Sunday, after officials determined the fire at the church school had substantially weakened a chimney and wall that left the adjacent sanctuary vulnerable.  

Despite the uncertainty of the buildings’ future, parishioners gathering in the makeshift place of worship were upbeat.

“My feeling as a Catholic, as a Christian, is that the Holy Spirit was already over the building (during the fire) and moving us forward,” said Patricia Burt, who was greeting parishioners outside the school’s Sister James Anthony Hall. “We’re all kind of in this together.”

Deacon Joe Nines agreed. “There’s an enthusiasm in the community. Tragedy brings out the best in people,” he said. 

Paul and Andrea Horos sat with their two sons in the bleachers for the first of two Sunday services. The boys, Alex and P.J., regularly play basketball in the gym and were unfazed by the surroundings. “We thought it was important to come out to be with the community and other families from the school,” Paul Horos said.  

Ryan Killeen, president of Norwood-Fontbonne, said the elementary and middle school on Germantown Avenue was more than a neighbor to OMC’s church and school. The two Catholic institutions share a heritage through the Sisters of St. Joseph, who run Norwood-Fontbonne and “have been in mission to OMC for 160 years,” Killeen said. “And many of our families are members of the OMC parish, so we have a lot of interconnected relationships.

“So many of our students have friends in Chestnut Hill, and the next day they were asking, ‘What are we going to do for OMC?’ Kids always want a concrete way they can respond.” They sent cards, letters and prayers, Killeen said.

Saturday evening, at Norwood-Fontbonne’s gala “Soiree for the Sisters” fundraiser, attendees made additional donations to support OMC, and a subsequent “Dress Down Day” student fundraiser netted additional donations for the neighboring school. In total, Thomas McGlinchey, Norwood-Fontbonne director of marketing and communications reported, more than $7,000 was raised for OMC.

Though Norwood-Fontbonne has a small chapel on its grounds, it can only accommodate 50 worshippers, Killeen said. Larger, “whole-school masses” are typically held in multi-purpose rooms such as the gym where the OMC congregation met Sunday.  Norwood-Fontbonne staffers prepared for the OMC mass as if it were a large school gathering, furnishing the space with altars, podiums, a piano and chairs.

OMC may worship at the school as long as necessary, Killeen said, an especially welcome offer as churches’ busy Holy Week approaches. Fisher thanked Norwood-Fontbonne administrators on Sunday for refusing any remuneration for the use of their space. “The generosity is really overwhelming,” the priest said.  

Norwood-Fontbonne’s gesture is among many from the greater Chestnut Hill community. As news of the fire broke on March 21, individuals and institutions rushed to help, first providing comfort and shelter, and later, helping to handle logistics for the displaced students and parishioners. In addition to 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday services at Norwood-Fontbonne, a Saturday evening mass was held at the Mother House of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Josiah Daniels, assistant rector at the neighboring St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, had raced across the street as the fired burned and “quickly met people from Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church and the hospital and businesses seeing what they could do to help. It was just a beautiful moment. We tend to stay behind our doors, but all come together in a moment of crisis.” After Rector Eric Hungerford gave OMC administrators a tour of St. Paul to offer up the facilities there, students adopted St. Paul’s portico as a transfer point for a long-scheduled field trip and held a praise and worship service in the sanctuary.  

Killeen said: “The whole community was trying to keep track of everybody, doing what we could to help,” he said. “We’ve all been staying in touch with the other organizations in town – the hospital, the college, the community association, the conservancy. We’re all trying to coordinate our efforts and not overwhelm OMC, just give them time to catch their breath.”