An historic Willimantic church remains standing after a massive three-alarm fire ripped through St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church Thursday afternoon, however officials said they plan to rebuild it.
Around 100 firefighters from nine departments were brought in to help get the blaze under control when the fire was noticed at the Valley Street church around 6:30 p.m.
"Words can't express this feeling of sadness," said Doreen Ellis, who oversees religious education and just retired from teaching at the school attached to the church.
Downtown Willimantic was packed with hundreds of people for the first of the Third Thursday events, which is a summer street festival on Main Street.
"A lot of these people probably came out to enjoy their night in town, on Main Street, all these businesses, and now it's just a huge spectacle," said artist Melica Bloom.
"I heard something fall," said one unidentified witness. "I looked up and saw a big cloud of smoke."
There is heavy water and smoke damage throughout the building. Flames were contained to the roof and the back of the sanctuary.
"I've had family members married here. My kids were baptized here," said Amy Nolet, who saw people crying Thursday night. "You hate to see this."
State police fire marshals snapped photos and collected evidence trying to pin down where and why the blaze began on Friday.
"They were very particular about who they allowed to be close to the building and who they wanted to speak to," said Mark Lonfontaine, who is overseeing the $400,000 renovations.
Cosmetic renovations are well underway. The scaffolding was installed. Scraping, plaster work and painting are slated for Monday.
Lonfontaine was the only one allowed back in to salvage some items including original furniture.
"Large celebrant's chair, candle sticks original to the church and Pascal candle, so pleased to have that," said Lonfontaine, who said the tabernacle, sacrament and sanctuary lamp were all found.
Church officials vowed to rebuild the church.
"Definitely, the bishop came and spent some time with our pastor," Lonfontaine said.
Early estimates for the renovations already slated plus the repairs from the fire could exceed a million dollars.
A heartbroken Sister Mary Mark, principal of the school connected to the church, was praying with her rosary as firefighters battled the fire.
"I think this is going to kill our pastor," she said. "He's just wanting to renovate it. He has so much pride in this church. He has put so much love, so much service in this church. He and his parishioners are going to be very, very saddened."
She said the school building was not heavily damaged, and now she's focusing on the congregation and how they're going to rebuild and move on once all the hot spots are extinguished.
"(Smoke was) coming out of all the chimneys of the building and coming out through all the eves of the building," said Matthew Vertefeuille, public information officer for the Willimantic Fire Department. "They immediately called a second alarm at 6:44 p.m. and a third alarm at 6:45 p.m."
The large fire burned for more than four hours and was brought under control before 11 p.m. The amount of water used to put the flames out created so much mud that a crane needs to be brought in to remove one of the fire trucks from the area.
"My husband, son and I got in our car and came down," said Ellis, who has been a member since the second grade. "It's horrible to see the flames and smoke billowing from the place you love and the parishioners started congregating."
According to its website, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church was built in 1903 and has had masses at the building for more than 110 years.
No injuries were reported, and the fire remains under investigation.
Weekend mass will be held at Saint Joseph Church on Jackson Street.
"One of our great strengths is the love people have for one another," Ellis said. "Church of great spirit where people worship together and love."
To see photos from the fire, click here.
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