GREENDALE — Kirby needed to go out at midnight. Normally this dog is sound asleep at that time, but he was agitated on Christmas Eve and needed to go out, and when his owner let him out he noticed something – strobe lights and alarm going off at St. Alphonsus Church.DSC_0010While Christmas decorations hang proudly on the exterior of St. Alphonsus Church, Greendale, the inside is being tended to by fire restoration professionals, including the Emergency Response Team from Kelmann Corporation, following a Christmas morning fire at the parish which caused more than $200,000 in damage. (Catholic Herald photo by Maryangela Layman Román)

The owner, who did not want to be identified, thought it was a burglary and called police. By the time they got there, they realized the church was on fire.

“The fire marshal has not told us the cause of the fire yet,” Fr. Alan Jurkus said.

He said the last person to leave the church left at 11:45 p.m. and the call was made at 12:13 a.m. according to a Greendale Fire Department press release. The fire originated in the sacristy.

According to a Greendale Fire Department statement, the fire was extinguished at 2 a.m. and the damage exceeded $200,000. Personnel and equipment to fight the fire also came from surrounding departments, including Greenfield, Franklin, Hales Corners, South Milwaukee, New Berlin, Tess Corners, Wauwatosa, the 128th Air Refueling Wing and Cudahy.

The state fire marshal was called in to investigate the cause which has yet to be determined.

“The whole church is not to be used because of smoke and soot damage and we will not be back in there for at least eight weeks,” Fr. Jurkus told your Catholic Herald last week in a telephone interview.

Along with the church, 17 of 25 classrooms were damaged and the return date for the students has been postponed to Jan. 9. Other events, including the parish’s regular fish fry on Jan. 13, will continue as planned.

The ceilings are being repainted and classroom accessories, such as computers, are being cleaned.

“Every room has to be scrubbed, deodorized, sanitized,” Fr. Jurkus said. “A huge undertaking.”

Many of the key accoutrements needed for Mass and various liturgical celebrations are gone.

“All decorations for all the seasons are destroyed,” Fr. Jurkus said. “We bought new camels for the wise guys to come. The wise ones and the camels are no more. Its just a heap of dust on the ground.”

Mass is being celebrated in a community room and gathering space while the church is being restored. The parish celebrated Masses the weekend of Dec. 31 in this temporary worshiping space.

Despite the immense damage, individuals and organizations have come to the aid of the 7,100 member parish. So far, St. John the Evangelist Parish, Greenfield; St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners; 11 Protestant churches; and charities have offered to help. Some help came as quickly as a week after the incident.

“Our friends at St. Luke Lutheran have graciously offered for us to use their church for a wedding,” Fr. Jurkus said. “At this point, people have been just generously sending contributions.”

The outreach ministry at Central City Churches, a charity St. Alphonsus has helped with their food pantry, has offered to put together a penny collection for the parish. But Fr. Jurkus refused the help.

“It really brought a tear to my eye that they would do that,” Fr. Jurkus said. “I said, ‘I’m incredibly grateful and humbled, but I would urge you to use the collection for your own needs in our name.’”

That hasn’t been the only offer Fr. Jurkus has turned down. He said he’s received several proposals from people as a way for them to use the fire to raise money.

“I’ve refused them because I don’t think it’s right to try and raise money until we know what we need the money for,” Fr. Jurkus said.

He also said they are in the process of sorting out insurance details with Catholic Mutual Group to know what’s being covered and what’s not.

“Once we know that, then we can decide to do what kind of fundraising we were planning to do,” he said.

Since the fire, Fr. Jurkus has received many supportive messages from the community, but he still has his worries.

“Now it’s really hitting,” he said. “Everything that you know where it is and what you take for granted is no longer there. That uncertainty and the fluidity is very hard for me to deal with. Every day is a new development.”

However, a ray of optimism has shone through the smoke and has given St. Alphonsus an opportunity to upgrade its look from the 1980s to a more current look.

Fr. Jurkus said a decorating committee has already been put together.

As for the real first responder, “Kirby is getting a nice big treat from us,” Fr. Jurkus said.