An unusual light: The 1960 fire at OLP
By Mike Meyers
Continued from last week
The morning of Jan. 6, 1960, Marshfield firefighters were battling a blaze in Our Lady of Peace Church at 1300 West Fifth Street.
The searing flames had also marched their way across the vaulted ceiling. A team of firemen climbed ladders outside the church to hack holes in the roof with their fire axes to ventilate the smoke.
Within 20 minutes of the first stream of water directed at the roaring fire, the fire was under control. The first equipment returned to the station was logged in at 8:30 p.m., and firemen were able to warm themselves and thaw their frozen firefighting equipment.
A fire watch was maintained through the night. There were no other fires, and the last team of watchers left the scene at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
The blaze did not disrupt class schedules at Our Lady of Peace School, attached to the church. Church services continued to be held with two daily masses in the convent, and daily 11:15 a.m. mass was held in the Columbus Auditorium. The regular five Sunday masses were held the next several weeks in the Columbus Auditorium, as well, until the church was repaired.
Fire Chief Verlyn Ziegahn said two firemen were treated the following day for severe frostbite to their ears – Marvin Strohman, 29, and Kenneth Huettl, 23, both second-class firemen. No other injuries were reported.
Chief Ziegahn estimated the damage from the fire at between $20- 25,000 – $217,000 in today’s dollars. Walter J. Dillenburg, founding pastor of Our Lady of Peace Parish, said the loss was 100 percent covered by insurance.
The blaze was confined to the sanctuary and nave portions of the church, and started in the section to the right of the altar, where a large Christmas crib display was located. Fire badly charred the area, and chased up into the ceiling, acoustical tile, and insulation.
The first few pews and the front of the church were badly charred from the fire above the creche and from burning tiles which fell from the ceiling. There was considerable smoke and water damage elsewhere in the church. Bricks in that area remain blackened yet today.
The state fire marshal was called to investigate the blaze. After talking to witnesses, a seven-year-old Marshfield boy admitted to authorities, late the next day, to accidentally starting the fire. No action was taken against the boy. The boy told the fire chief that he lit a match to see the Baby Jesus in the nativity scene in the darkened church. The match burned down to his fingers and caused him to drop it in the hay in the creche. The hay blazed up and he became freighted and ran home.
The investigation revealed that Father Dennis Stanchik, assistant priest at Our Lady of Peach, was in the church at about 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening to gather some items for services he was to conduct, saw the boy and recognized him. There were no signs of fire at that time, and the nativity scene lights were not turned on.
A short 15 minutes later the fire was discovered. Father Lane, who called in the alarm, then raced over to the church in an attempt to save the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle on the altar. The smoke was so intense that he was driven from the building.
Moments later, two nuns from the nearby convent fanned the smoke from around him, and Father Lane was successful in retrieving what he was after.
The first mass was celebrated in Our Lady of Peace Church in February 1949, with a newly formed congregation. The original church and school, without equipment was constructed at a cost of $280,000 – $2,988,000 today. The church where the fire took place was eventually converted, as originally planned in 1948, into a gymnasium, after a new half-million-dollar modern church structure was dedicated on June 12, 1966.