The joy of Christmas was brought to a crashing halt early Christmas Eve morning 1986. We had arrived at my parent’s home inMidlandthe night before along with my brother’s family. We did not yet have children of our own so we were really looking forward to experiencing Christmas morning with 2 children. Two children who had little sleep for almost a week in expectation for the arrival of Santa! We were sitting around the kitchen table when my mother returned home after running a few errands. She was visibly upset and told us the news that there had been a fire at the church in the early morning hours. The church was basically gutted. Fortunately there was no loss of life but this was a huge loss to the people within the community. Growing up in a small town everyone is touched by such a loss even if you did not attend the church. For those who did attend there were so many memories of the monumental life events that they had celebrated in the church.
Having the fire happen on Christmas Eve morning was even more devastating as thoughts turned to where we would go for Christmas mass. I also wondered what became of the carillon of bells that rang from the church steeple. During my high school years I would play Christmas hymns on the Carillon of bells. The church had placed the bells in 1922 in remembrance of those who had lost their lives during the First World War. When I played the bells on Christmas Eve it felt like they were somehow still with us celebrating the special night. I was told that on a clear night the bells could be heard for miles. I always wondered if they were even heard in heaven.
The community rallied to help. Every church in the area, regardless of denomination, offered up the use of their facilities for our Christmas masses. The church leaders chose to use the gymnasium of the high school. For years separate schools had received only limited government funding and the church had struggled to keep the high school open. How ironic that the school became the sanctuary for the church. Symbolically I felt it was like the nativity story where “they laid him the manger because there was no room at the inn.”
I attended the first Christmas mass that evening. It was the most beautiful and memorable Christmas I have ever experienced. There were no fancy decorations, tinsel or glitter. Candles glowed in the dimly lit gymnasium. We sat on wooden chairs instead of beautifully polished church pews. People hugged and consoled one another.. The smell of smoke wafted through the air as the baby Jesus, who had been rescued from the fire, was brought forth and placed in the manger.
During the mass we were told about the fire. Officials suspected arson. The fire ruined the main part of the church but stopped just short of the altar area. No one was hurt which was somewhat unbelievable considering the 8 massive bells had fallen from 40 feet above. Those in the congregation who were emergency workers who helped had helped were thanked. They received an immediate standing ovation that lasted several minutes. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.
The stage which now served as the front of the church was literally covered with poinsettias. We were told that they were all donated that day by people from the community and from across the country. People wanted to help in some way and the poinsettia became the symbol of hope and love. Seeing this wonderful display of this simple flower lifted everyone’s spirits. We all knew that things were going to be alright.
The true meaning of Christmas has never shone more brightly for me than it did that night. The church building was damaged but the outpouring of concern, care and love was never stronger. It was definitely a “Christmas to Remember. “
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