1990-1999: DECADE OF AFFLUENCE & ANXIETY
Sparks of hope survive St. Mary's, Bowser Pump fires
By KEVIN KILBANE, of The News-Sentinel
News-Sentinel photo by Steve Linsenmayer
Historic church fire
Dense smoke engulfs the spire of St. Mary's Catholic Church on Sept. 2, 1993.
The Rev. Tom O'Connor still calls it his worst nightmare. Lightning slashed down from gray skies and exploded into the roof of St. Mary's Catholic Church. Within minutes, dense smoke billowed over the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Lafayette Street. Later, the historic church's roof and main spire crashed into its sanctuary, leaving only the red brick walls.
That was Sept. 2, 1993.
Four years later, almost to the day, nightmarish flames roared skyward again in the central city. This time, firefighters battled an arson blaze at the old Bowser Pump Co. plant at 2323 Bowser Ave.
The estimated 500,000 tires dumped there burned for two days. Thick, black smoke and toxic chemicals released by the burning rubber forced hundreds to evacuate. Tire debris landed all over the city.
Miraculously, neither fire caused serious injury. And from the ashes of each blaze, life -- and hope -- have sprung anew.
Neither location had been a stranger to spark and flame.
A Christmas Day fire leveled the Bowser Pump plant in 1897.
St. Mary's rebuilt after a boiler explosion and fire destroyed its second church in 1886. But the 1993 blaze devastated the small congregation and the Fort Wayne community.
The majestic church, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, had stood at Jefferson and Lafayette since 1887. It had been families' spiritual home for generations, O'Connor said.
With its sweeping arches, intricately detailed stained-glass windows and towering spires -- the tallest reached 238 feet -- St. Mary's also stood as grand testament to the beauty of Gothic architecture and to the city's German heritage.
"You had to go through a grieving process to see where this was a blessing," said O'Connor, who has led St. Mary's parish for 30 years.
But that is how he sees it now.
St. Mary's new, $3.5 million complex -- built with a portion of its fire insurance settlement and nearly $300,000 in community donations -- more closely fits the congregation's mission and ministry today, O'Connor said.
The new sanctuary, which members moved into Oct. 31, 1998, seats about 275 people, offering a more intimate worship setting for the parish's 250 families. The old church's cavernous interior seated 1,000, and people spread throughout its rows of well-worn oak pews.
O'Connor said the new 23,000-square-foot building is energy-efficient and accessible to people with physical disabilities. Space designed for meetings, classes and offices now permits St. Mary's to bring under one roof the many programs the parish formerly had to operate at satellite locations.
A state-of-the-art kitchen and separate parking area allow St. Mary's Soup Kitchen to serve the needy more effectively and conveniently. An average of 1,000 people a day stop by the church for hot soup. Cooks send another 11 gallons of soup to satellite locations for distribution.
"We have a building suited for the 21st century," O'Connor says.
City officials and community leaders hope to encourage a similar restoration at the 12 1/2 -acre Bowser Pump site.
They took a major step toward that goal in October, when the city accepted bids to transform about 2 1/4 acres of former plant property into a housing addition. The site will get a new section of street and 10 new homes priced from about $90,000 to $125,000.
Soil contamination from solvents, pesticides and herbicides will slow development of the remaining 10 acres, said Greg Leatherman, city brownfield redevelopment manager.
But Leatherman said the city will continue working to revive the remaining land in a way that benefits the surrounding neighborhood.