By JULIE A. WAGNER
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
YOUNGSTOWN -- A lightning strike into the organ loft started a fire that gutted the original St. Columba Cathedral 50 years ago this week.
City residents reported hearing a loud crack of thunder about 9:30 p.m. Sept. 2, 1954, that "rocked them out of their chairs," according to a story in The Vindicator. However, the first report of fire did not come until 10:57 p.m., after the fire apparently had smoldered for about 11/2 hours, officials told the newspaper in 1954. A passerby had noticed flames and knocked on the door of the rectory next door to the cathedral, on West Wood Street in downtown.
At the scene
Monsignor James R. Kolp, then an assistant at the cathedral, was in the rectory, and he and the Rev. William Picard ran into the church to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle. Father Kolp, now living in Alliance and pastor emeritus of St. Mary Church in Massillon, said they left the sacrament at a nearby religious bookstore run by the Daughters of St. Paul. The two priests then entered the Cathedral again to get what they could from the sacristy.
About this time, The Vindicator reports, firefighters arrived to the sight of flames "framed by the big rose window over the main entrance." In the end, 11 fire companies would battle the blaze for several hours.
While firefighters continued working, Father Kolp drove out to Lake Meander Reservoir, where church rector Monsignor Joseph Trainor was staying.
"I went out to break the news to him. I told him there was a fire at the church. I didn't want to upset him too much," Father Kolp said, this week. He said that Father Trainor was advanced in age.
The two priests returned to Youngstown the next morning to find that only the walls and the two towers topped by steeples remained. The damage would total more than $1.25 million, but insurance coverage would amount to $940,000, then Bishop Emmet M. Walsh told The Vindicator. At first, officials thought the remaining parts of the structure could be saved, but less than a week later, an inspector ruled that the heat had weakened the walls and towers.
By the next day, the church had moved its Sunday Masses to the National Guard Armory at 325 Rayen Ave. Weekday masses were at the Catholic Action Center, behind the rectory.
The rectory next door and nearby St. Columba School were spared. Unfortunately, the towers and steeples were deemed unstable. In March 1955, as workers tore down them down, debris from the eastern tower fell into the rectory. A piece of stone, estimated at 500 pounds, tore a hole 12 square feet in the roof and went through a bathroom and office before landing in the basement, newspaper reports said. Everyone had been ordered out of the building while workers razed the cathedral ruins, and no one was hurt.
Keeping the memory
Father Kolp said he has many fond memories of the old cathedral. He was ordained there in 1950. It was a beautiful church that had walls made of wood, which probably fed the fire, he said. It was Gothic in structure style, reports said.
The current rector of the Cathedral, Monsignor Lawrence Fye, also was part of the history of that time. The new Cathedral, a stone structure that seats more than 800, was completed and dedicated in 1958. Father Fye was a member of the first class of priests ordained in the new cathedral May 30, 1959. He became rector in 1985.
The builders used some of the old foundation in the new cathedral, and parts of it can be seen there, Father Fye said.
Father Trainor died in 1956 before the new building was completed.