A Funeral and A Fire Alarm

 Love, Sue

It was Thursday morning, January 9th, 2014.  Victoria was on the tail-end of its first Deep Freeze of the season, with the thermometer beginning to head north.  St. Victoria was in the midst of a funeral . . .

. . . when the fire alarm went off in the old church.  But let’s start at the beginning.

People walking across the parking lot at the St. Victoria Catholic Church were more afraid of slipping on the ice than freezing to death.  There was no wind and the sky was blue.

People gathered inside the new church, sitting on the parking lot side, for the 11 a.m. funeral of Mae Schmid, longtime member of St. Victoria who always sat on the cemetery side.

Now the classy lady who had seen her mother live to be 105, was lying in her coffin at the age of 92, watching from afar her family and friends who came to say goodbye and remember her life here.

Part way through the Mass, an unusual sound emanated from the area near the baptismal pool, like the rushing of air or water from a faucet or maybe the rasping of a sound system gone awry.  In any case, it didn’t last long.  Mass continued without interruption.

Suddenly, during the Holy Holy, it seemed like someone had turned the faucet on high or that the sound system was totally malfunctioning.  But when the fire alarm started buzzing — Beep Beep Beep — and the hissing sound grew more pronounced and the fire alarm didn’t stop — Beep Beep Beep — it demanded attention.  There was cause for concern.  Beep Beep Beep.

Some men at the funeral left their seats in the new church and chased toward the old church.  Said Father Bob, “Mae often had crises in her life.  Now there’s crises during her funeral.”

Mass continued.  Beep Beep Beep.  At the piano, which is located on the opposite end of the baptismal pool in the new church and tabernacle in the old church, I was smelling smoke.  Beep Beep Beep.  I recognized, for the first time, that the piano is very far from all the exits, the farthest, but I’m a fast runner and I wasn’t seeing any flames.

“Sue!  Sue!  Play!”  Oh, yes, back to the business at hand.  “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”  Mass was over at 12 noon.  Some of Mae’s family and friends followed Father Bob to the cemetery next door.   Others walked directly to Elstan Hall for the funeral luncheon.

I walked into the old church to get the story and take pictures.  Victoria firemen were everywhere.  All the furniture had been relocated from the sanctuary — including the altar, the tabernacle, the priest’s chair, the podium, the candles — into the carpeted space in front of the front pews.

It wasn’t good to see the disarray on holy ground, but it was very good to see the Victoria firemen handling the situation in a calm and collected manner. 

Another of the six Victoria firefighters who answered the call on scene to help out at St. Victoria was Troy Walsh.  Four other Victoria firefighters were on standby at the Victoria Fire Station.

Fireman Rick Leuthner was shop-vacking and others were squeegee mopping and hand-mopping up the dirty black water from the beautiful hardwood floor. 

Troy answered questions for the Gazette.  He said that it was a fire sprinkler pipe that actually broke, a pipe that led to the basement sprinkler system.  When the new church was constructed, the old church needed to also be equipped with a fire sprinkler system.

Troy said the broken pipe was located in a void space, in a wall between the altar area and the newly remodeled sacristy room.  How did the Deep Freeze cause this to happen?  Replied Troy, “There is water in the fire sprinkler pipe, and with very frigid temps the cold air somehow entered that area and froze the pipe.  When the pipe froze and the water expanded, it created a small crack in the pipe.  Once the temperatures started warming up, the frozen pipe thawed and the water then made its way through the crack.”

Why was the water so black?  “The fire sprinkler system is tested and drained annually,” explained Troy.  “The water will sit in the sprinkler system for up to twelve months.  This allows sediments and minerals in the water to settle in the low spots of the pipes.  This is similar to the underground watermains in the streets and why the City Public Works Department flushes city watermains.”

After coming inside from interment at the adjacent St. Victoria Cemetery, Father Bob White stepped inside to thank the Victoria firefighters and also Carver County Deputy Pete Eckenburg for responding to the emergency situation at the church.

Why did the fire alarm go off when there was no fire?  Replied Troy, “The fire sprinkler system is integrated into the fire alarm system.  That way, when a sprinkler head activates or, in this case, a pipe breaks, someone is notified 24 hours a day.  This system will also alert the building occupants.”

The main man caught in the middle everything was Father Bob/  When he heard the fire alarm during Mae’s funeral, did he consider calling it off for a while and evacuating the church?

Said Father Bob, whose physical eyesight has not been good for several years, “I couldn’t see.  But I sensed that our trusty maintenance man John Wall was aware of the situation.  I figured that if we needed to evacuate, he would let us know.  When I didn’t hear from him, I said to the congregation, ‘This funeral Mass is going on until we hear otherwise.’”

How did he keep his cool?  “I faked it,” replied Father Bob.  “I actually was so distracted by the fire alarm going off and the water gushing out that I suddenly drew a blank on prayers that I have had memorized for years.  I improvised as best I could and I don’t know if you noticed or not, but the Mass suddenly got shorter.”

Are repairs being made and are they costly?  Replied Deacon Ray Ortman, “Repairs are complete.  The pipe is repaired and wallboard, too.  Floors look okay for now, but we will examine more closely as time progresses.  Insurance will cover all of the cost except for our $1,000 deductible.”

Oh, yes.  It wasn’t regular fire smoke that I had been smelling at the piano.  It was the incense.