MADISON, IL (KTVI)– A massive fire destroyed an historic Polish church in Madison, Illinois, and tied up fire departments across Madison County, Wednesday afternoon.
The fire started around 4:30 pm Wednesday. Firefighters had it out within two hours. They saved nearby homes, but it was too late for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, National Polish Catholic Church.
“They were doing roof work on it,” said Madison Fire Chief, David Klee. “When we got here it was already through the roof in the back. It was a pretty aggressive fire.”
“I was daydreaming looking at the church,” said witness, Tina Watkins, who was visiting a friend across the street from the church.
The flames popped up right before her eyes. “It just went up in flames. It went up really quick. It was like it just ignited. I was like, ‘Oh my God, the church is on fire!’” she said.
She ran to call 911. Like the flames, word of what was happening to this holy place spread among those who carry its history in their hearts.
“A friend of mine was watching (TV), I had the soap opera on. She had Channel 2. She says there’s a fire in Madison on Reynolds Street. This is the only church on Reynolds Street. I said, ‘Oh my God, it can’t be my church!’” said former church member Clara Popovchak.
Sadly it was; the church where she was married and before that, baptized; her father among its founders 85 years ago in the small but thriving Polish community in Madison.
There are only about 15 members now.
Investigators suspected the fire’s cause had something to do with the ongoing roof work. A roofing crew left the building minutes before the flames seemed to pop up from nowhere.
“They were doing asphalt shingle work on the main part of the church, then some rubber roof flatwork on the back,” Klee said. “They use torches for that. The equipment was up for that kind of work. We talked with the owner of the company. He verified that was the kind of work they were doing.”
“I was baptized here; made my communion, confirmation and got married here, just can’t get over it,” Popovchak said, fighting tears.
“Jesus died. Everybody thought everything is over,” said Father Andrzej Bako, who came from Poland to be the church’s pastor in 1995. “It’s just the building. Many churches burn and they will rebuild. The most important thing is the living church is still intact.”
A state fire marshal’s investigator was at the scene. Firefighters still considered the cause accidental.
Fr. Bako said the building was insured. The congregation, though small, might rebuild in a new location. Perhaps the fire that destroyed the building will bring new life and growth to the church.
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