California wildfires leave diocese 'hit hard'

A series of wildfires has hit Northern California, killing dozens, destroying thousands of structures and burning hundreds of thousands of acres. Among the Catholic dioceses most affected is the Diocese of Santa Rosa, which runs from Napa in the south to the Oregon border. In a statement to parishioners issued Oct. 10, Bishop Robert F. Vasa said, “Our diocese has been hit hard, as you know well, and is in an ongoing state of uncertainty.”

Displaced people

Among the first structures threatened was the chancery office in Santa Rosa, yet remarkably, while the surrounding neighborhoods were destroyed, the chancery was spared. It is located in a mandatory evacuation zone, however, and the power is out. Bishop Vasa has been forced to work out of his car, visiting shelters in the area. He said, “I have met numerous folks who are in shelters and who have no home to which to return. The sense of great helplessness is palpable. That helplessness extends to the caregivers who know that short-term solutions are necessary but also severely inadequate to meet the long term needs.”

Among buildings destroyed is the diocese’s Cardinal Newman High School, located a few miles away from the chancery. Its administration building and 75 percent of its classrooms have burned down, reported Stephen Morris, diocesan director of youth and young adult ministry, who has an office at the high school. He said, “We’ve learned that 150 of our Cardinal Newman families have lost their homes or been displaced. And many of our school staff have lost their homes.”

St. Rose Elementary School, which shares a campus with the high school, also saw significant damage. As the fire is still active, parishes and schools in other parts of the diocese are threatened, Morris added.

Among those who have lost homes is 80-year-old widow Victoria Lemus, whose son, Father Raúl Lemus, is pastor of St. Joseph Church in Cotati and promoter of vocations for the Diocese of Santa Rosa. Victoria lived in a mobile home park for seniors, when Monday at 2:30 a.m., a few hours after the fires began, a neighbor banged on her door and woke her. Bringing nothing more than her purse and the clothes she was wearing, Victoria fled the approaching fire and is staying with her son in the parish rectory. Her home was completely destroyed less than an hour after she left.

“She lost all her belongings, including many things of sentimental value, like the veil she wore for Mass,” said Father Lemus. “Little by little it is hitting her, that everything is gone. But, she’s a strong woman of faith, and knows she’s lucky to be alive, so I think she’ll eventually recover.”

St. Joseph’s Parish is currently safe from the fires — although thick smoke makes it difficult to breathe outside — but he noted that many in his community, located just south of Santa Rosa, will be impacted economically. He said, “They’ll have no jobs to which to return.”

Church sanctuary

People have been turning to God during the ordeal, he believes; he’s noted that daily Mass attendance has more than doubled since the fires began.

Father Frank Epperson is rector of the Cathedral of St. Eugene in Santa Rosa. The cathedral is just a block away from a mandatory evacuation area, but, too, has so far escaped destruction. Yet many who are part of the parish community have lost everything. These include both Father Epperson’s secretary and housekeeper.

“They had to flee with just the clothes on their backs,” Father Epperson said. “It was scary. My housekeeper woke up, smelled smoke, looked outside and knew she had to leave immediately. A neighbor woke up my secretary; when she fled her house, the roof was on fire.”

The cathedral has served as a shelter for the displaced, and has received multiple visits from Bishop Vasa to comfort the victims. The diocese’s Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa are helping to staff the shelter.

Other parishes in the area are serving as shelters as well, including St. Apollinaris in Napa. The fire was all around the parish, but did not reach the parish itself. St. Apollinaris is offering meals, beds, clothing and other basic supplies, reported Father David Jenuwine, parochial vicar. He has heard many stories of suffering from visitors to the shelter, such as a woman who was ordered to evacuate along with her brother, who returned to try to retrieve his new car. “The authorities called her and told her that they had found him dead,” Father Jenuwine said. “It’s been like that here, as if we’re in an apocalyptic movie or a war zone.”

While St. Apollinaris is safe at the moment, he said, a pickup in the wind could spell disaster. He’s among those praying for rain expected in the upcoming week.

Unprecedented damage

Father Epperson grew up in Napa, and noted that forest fires were about a once in a decade experience. But, he said, this series of fires has been different. He explained, “We never had anything that came down into town, destroying neighborhoods and businesses.”

Morris agreed, calling the fire damage “unprecedented.” Father Lemus added, “We’ve been hard hit here; so many have lost their homes. It’s sad and tragic, and a real blow to our people.”

Father Epperson said, “It’s going to take us years to recover.”

Yet despite the destruction, Morris continued, he has marveled at the “outpouring of love and support” the region has received both locally and across the nation. He said, “We see people opening up their homes and churches to help the victims. Our shelters have received a flood of donations and volunteers wanting to help.”

Bishop Vasa thanked those who have offered support, and said, “...we acknowledge the sense of loss and suffering experienced by those who have lost their homes, or businesses, or places of employment. We pray that you do not lose hope, nor the sense of God’s presence and ultimate goodness. You must know that the hearts of the entire community, though it can neither feel what you feel, nor undo the loss, do go out to you.”

Father Lemus added, “Many of us are on the way of the Cross, at the foot of the Cross or even on the Cross itself. But, we’ll get through it. There will be a resurrection.”

Jim Graves writes from California.