Greendale's St. Alphonsus Catholic Church is back after fire

Services held this weekend after Christmas Day blaze

Crocker Stephenson

Dec. 31, 2011

Greendale - Father Alan Jurkus - a tall man with hair as white as the robes he wore for evening Mass Saturday - stood at the doors leading to St. Alphonsus Catholic Church's community room with his arms spread wide.

"Happy New Year!" he said to his arriving congregation.

"The cathedral is this way!"

A writer could wear out the exclamation-mark key on his computer quoting a man like Jurkus, whose enthusiasm and humor seemed unscathed by the fire that, reported two minutes into the first hour of Christmas Day, wreaked hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to St. Alphonsus' sanctuary and school.

The original estimate of what the fire would cost, which was around $200,000, is, Jurkus said, "a dream."

"They're up to $300,000 already and they haven't even gotten to the church," he said in a manner that, all things considered, sounded downright cheery.

Another estimate that Jurkus is not putting much faith in is the one that asserts the sanctuary will be ready for business in about two months.

"You know how those things work," he said.

"Eight weeks becomes 10 weeks becomes . . ." and he shrugged.

In the meantime, parishioners are squeezing into the community room, where folding chairs and a temporary altar have been set up, and into an adjoining space, where folding chairs and a screen the size of a Jumbotron have been arranged.

The Mass being said in the community room is projected onto the screen, an event Jurkus calls "sacrament by satellite."

Both spaces are in themselves as large as some churches, but St. Alphonsus is the third or fourth largest parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee - more than 2,750 families belong - and Saturday's crowd nearly filled both rooms to capacity.

Smoke damaged 17 classrooms, Jurkus said.

Students were to return from Christmas break on Tuesday. They will have to wait, but not long. What Jurkus called "a small army of professional restoration people" is expected to have the school ready for teachers by Thursday and for students by Friday.

This was one of the many blessings Jurkus was counting Saturday.

Another was that insurance is going to cover all the work done so far. That may change when work starts on the sanctuary, which was to be refurbished this year. The pews, for example, may not need to be scrubbed clean and restored if they are going to be removed anyway.

"The situation is fluid," Jurkus said.

Jurkus also was thankful for a neighborhood dog named Kirby, who fortuitously needed to be let out in the middle of the night and alerted his owner to the fire.

Jurkus said he hopes to have a dog figure made for the church's manger scene so that Kirby can become part of the St. Alphonsus Christmas tradition.

In good voice

Jurkus also was grateful that the fire reminded him the church is not the building but is the people.

And though there were no missals or hymnals to use, the congregation sounded like they wouldn't need them when the Mass began and everyone joined, voices booming, in singing, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

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