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Polish Hill Catholic church blaze damage small, pastor claims

| Thursday, July 18, 2013, 12:04 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill's dome that was struck by lightning during Tuesday's storms.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Father Joseph Swierczynski stands in the sanctuary of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill beneath the dome where lightning struck during Tuesday's storms.
A trap door leading from the inside of the main dome of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill to the outside was damaged by a fire that broke out on Tuesday evening after lightning struck a cross on top of dome. A fire restoration crew planned to temporarily cover the damaged door to prevent rain water entering the building until permanent repairs can be made.

The pastor of a Polish Hill church that caught fire when lightning struck a cross atop its main dome said Wednesday that minimal damage to the historic building “is a blessing” and a credit to firefighters.

“I have no doubt that this could have been much, much worse for us,” said the Rev. Joe Swierczynski, 75, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church on Brereton Avenue for the last 18 years.

“The firefighters were here in minutes, and they did an absolutely amazing job of keeping the fire from spreading and not doing any damage as they came through here to get up into the dome,” he said.

The fire broke out Tuesday evening and smoldered in the narrow crawl space between the dome's interior plaster ceiling and the copper-clad exterior. Firefighters first hauled pressurized, portable fire extinguishers, or “water cans,” up wooden ladders in a narrow channel accessed from a loft storage room, Swierczynski said.

Firefighters pulled several hundred feet of hose through the church and up into the dome while an aerial ladder truck allowed other firefighters to gain access from outside.

City fire Chief Darryl Jones said firefighters followed “standard practice to protect property.”

“So whenever we can, we try to spread salvage tarps to prevent additional damage. Sometimes we get lucky and are able to minimize damage from water and smoke.”

Swierczynski celebrated a “Mass of thanks” with a handful of parishioners early Wednesday. One of them held a flashlight for the priest to see Bible readings because the electricity was shut off during the fire.

Until the power is turned back on and fire restoration consultants give the go-ahead to use the church, the pastor plans to celebrate Mass outdoors under a tent set up for Saturday's church festival, which will go on as scheduled.

No weddings are scheduled until Aug. 10.

This is the second church in the city that was closed this month because of damage.

On July 12, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh ordered that St. Mary of the Mount Church in Mt. Washington not be used until the deteriorating ceiling in the 100-year-old structure on Grandview Avenue is repaired.

Don Bair of G.S. Jones Fire Restoration in Emsworth said his initial assessment of the ethnic Polish church — built by immigrants between 1904 and 1906 — found only charred timbers.

“They (firefighters) did a good job of putting the fire out quickly and getting tarpaulins down to minimize water damage. Otherwise, it could have been an incredible mess in here,” Bair said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the only visible signs of the fire were a wet spot between church pews and a small puddle of murky water on a plastic tarp placed in the center of the building some 21 stories below the main dome. A tiny trap door leading from inside the dome to the outside was damaged and had to be covered with plastic to prevent rain from entering the building, Bair said.

Jones set the initial damage estimate at $40,000.

Swierczynski said insurance should cover most of the cost of cleanup and repairs to the dome, which was refurbished — inside and out — several years ago at a cost of more than $40,000.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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