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Christian Charity: The 1972 St. Brigid’s Church fire in Lilly was a tragedy that demonstrated love




The interior of St. Brigid's prior to the fire


“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”


Matthew: 22:35-37

The horrible irony could not have been worse on February 1, 1972, the feast of St. Brigid.

A parish known for the most venerated female saint in Ireland, St. Brigid, lost its church on her feast day more than 50 years ago. The church had been newly-renovated, and it had been in existence for 89 years.


The fire devastated St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Lilly, Pa. that night, destroying everything but the front of the of the Gothic-era designed church that had been originally constructed in 1912.

The damage amounted to approximately $500,000, and the parish worried that it did not have enough insurance money to rebuild. That was long-term, but the immediate need was for a place to worship. The parishioners did not have long to concern themselves about that.


St. Brigid’s was not the only Catholic Church in the community. Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church was the other.

The pastor of Mount Carmel, Father Anthony Czeslawski, on behalf of the parishioners, went to the pastor of St. Brigid’s and offered their parish church as a sacred place to hold their services for weekly mass.

Their kindness was truly something that Jesus would have loved.


History of St. Brigid’s parish


What became St. Brigid’s Parish started as a mission of St. Aloysius in Cresson. The next parish opened in 1881, and by 1883, with the size of the congregation increasing steadily, the Altoona Diocese agreed to allow Lilly to construct its own church. He also agreed to allow the same for Gallitzin, and it was constructed around the same time. .


Since both communities were predominantly Irish, with large groups of Italians and Germans, the name of St. Patrick was given to the Gallitzin church, and of St. Brigid to the one in Lilly.


A church was built on Main Street in Lilly, and in 1912, it was moved to its present location back from the street. Eventually a rectory, convent, and school were added.


Father Richard Browne was named its first pastor, and today he is buried in St. Brigid’s Cemetery, which was designed later and was first called St. Columba’s, another Irish saint.


The fire

According to the book published by the parish on the 100th anniversary of St. Brigid’s Parish, this is what transpired on that fateful day in 1972,

On the feast of St. Brigid, February 1, 1972, fire was discovered in the right east end section of the newly renovated church. By morning, only charred pews and other debris could be found among the ashes. Only a large wooden cross was saved from the Gothic structure. Loss was estimated at $500,000.


Several fire companies responded to the alarm, but their efforts were hampered by nature’s freezing temperatures. Icy streams surrounded the flaming structures, reflecting the anguish and heartaches of Monsignor Philip B. Curran and his fellow parishioners. The heat of the flames were of a brilliant white. Faulty wiring was blamed for the misfortune.

St. Brigid’s, 1983-1983


Reconstruction


The story about not having enough insurance was not accurate. Nevertheless, money poured in from throughout the area to help with rebuilding the church.


Many people worked to save bricks from the fire and to save the front of the edifice so that the original approach could be similar to what had existed for 60 years. Removing the debris was a challenging task.


Gratitude

However, the tremendous love shown by the parishioners and pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was incredible. At a time in the church’s history when charity appears to be lacking, we should look back at the kindness and generosity of the people of Mount Carmel and thank them for their love and charity that was something to behold.


Here is what the people of St. Brigid’s said about their kindness ten years later, as recounted in its anniversary book,


Thank you to Mount Carmel and Father Anthony for using their parish:

Remembering the tragic fire which destroyed St. Brigid’s Church on February 1, 1972, brings to mind the kindness, consideration, and generosity of many people. Among those we are especially grateful to Rev. Anthony Czeslawski and the parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.


They graciously offered us the used of their church, which we thankfully accepted.

St. Brigid’s anniversary book

The piece also thanked the parishioners and pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Lilly for providing their dining and kitchen facilities for lunch or dinner for social functions and to the ladies of that parish who kindly helped with those activities.


So, not only did the Catholic Churches come together, so did the Protestant ones who were kind, too.


The parish was also grateful to the Lilly United Methodist Church because it too offered its church for St. Brigid’s to use if necessary.


In short, after Mount Carmel had avoided a potential disaster a few years earlier, its pastor and member remembered their neighbors in a special way.

That is a lesson that all of us should remember today, more than 50 years later.

Love your neighbors.

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