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Fire restoration continues at church

In the early morning hours of Oct. 7, fire struck inside St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Police say two TV sets were stolen, as was a case of sacramental wine. The upstairs, sanctuary and fellowship hall were damaged to the tune of an estimated $100,000, destroying much of the electrical equipment and forcing the pews to be removed and thoroughly cleaned.

Then the fire went out.

The damage, some of it, could be repaired. The building is still standing. The alleged perpetrator was captured. The half-century-old mosaic of the crucifixion, and similar designs of the Virgin Mary and Lady of Fatima still look down at a roughly 225-family parish that can’t wait to get back.

“We’re hanging in there,” Father Lou Ruoff said Wednesday afternoon, making his way through the newly-empty sanctuary. “(The mosaic) was the one thing that people were most concerned about. It came from Italy about 50 years ago.”

Ruoff stepped into the hallways, still cluttered with debris from the ceiling and walls and blackened from smoke and heat.

“It’s amazing,” he said, indicating a now-empty closet. “We had a couple hundred candles for different occasions, and they all melted.”

Back in the sanctuary, fire restoration crew chief Valerie Troll, of the Newport News restoration group Peerless, watched her employees polish some of the damaged areas.

“It’s very sad,” said Troll, who attended St. Mary’s schools in Maryland as a child. “But it’s coming along very, very well.”

Workers used a platform to lift them to the roof so they could clean off the smoke damage.

They mopped up the brick walls so they could be repainted. The pews were taken back to the Peerless shop to be given a special treatment in order to repair the smoke and heat damage.

Though parishioners had hoped to be back in the church by Thanksgiving, they now look toward Christmas.

“The Christmas season is very special and dear to everyone,” said J.J. Marx, “but to have your place where you come together as a religious community and celebrate the holidays is even more special. We can celebrate the fact that the building is still there. We came close to it being gone, and we have something to look forward to getting back into. The kids are looking forward to getting back into Sunday school.”

Less than a week after the fire, James Dean Henderson, of Linden Road, was arrested and charged with burglary, arson and grand larceny in the incident, and police spokeswoman Debbie George. Police have since said they don’t expect any further arrests.

Henderson, who is currently being held at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail, will have a Nov. 21 preliminary hearing in Suffolk’s General District court.

Soon after the church burned, Baker Funeral Home offered to act as a substitute sanctuary. The church members accepted that offer.

“Thank God for Robert Baker and his Home,” Marx said. “It was a very nice thing for him to do.”

Once the sanctuary is fixed, Ruoff said, he plans to hold a dinner for the parish.

“We’ll pray and give gratitude,” he said. “They’ll be happy.”

That’s pretty obvious.

“We will recover,” Marx said. “We will rebuild. We will go on, and we’ll be in our church for Christmas. The consolation is that the building is still there, and we’ll move on and go down the road together.”