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MARLBOROUGH -- Father Steven Clemence celebrated his last Mass in the upper church of Immaculate Conception Parish at 5 p.m. on Jan. 20. That evening, around 10:30 p.m., he received a call from the church's alarm company notifying him that there was a fire at the church.
Father Clemence, who had been administrator at Immaculate Conception for five months, ran to the church with one of the parochial vicars, Father Andrea Filippucci. The fire was in the sacristy, but the smoke was so thick inside the church that the priests could not see the fire, and the doors to the sacristy were so hot they could not enter.
Firefighters responded from Marlborough and the neighboring towns of Hudson and Northborough. Father Clemence and Father Filippucci showed them the entrances and electrical room.
"It's a miracle that everything happened the way it happened," Father Clemence said when the Pilot visited the parish on Feb. 16. He noted that if he and Father Filippucci had not been there to direct the firefighters, or if they had not been able to enter the church, the loss could have been greater.
The fire, which was ruled accidental, was contained to the sacristy, but the upper church suffered smoke and water damage. Everything stored in the sacristy -- liturgical books, sacred vessels, vestments, the sound system and the light system -- was lost. The lower church also suffered some water damage and one of its ceilings had to be demolished.
Chris Snyder, whose children and grandchildren attend Immaculate Conception, said she is grateful the parish has "energetic young priests" who were able to run to the scene.
"It just makes you realize how fragile life is, like it really is a matter of minutes that you have before something catastrophic can happen," Snyder said.
Kathy Halfpenny, a third-generation parishioner involved in several parish groups, said most of the community heard about the fire through social media as it was happening. In the following days and weeks, Father Clemence used the parish's Facebook page to share updates about the situation.
"Despite the trauma of seeing something you love going up in smoke, we are grateful to God who spared the Church and that nobody was injured in the fire. The firefighters kept saying that we were lucky. I like to think that we were blessed," Father Clemence wrote on the parish's Facebook page on Jan. 22.
He shared more details in a Jan. 28 post: "The day after the fire, the Fire Chief and the Assistant Chief came over to finish their report and see the scene with daylight. They both mentioned to us that 2 to 5 more minutes and the whole church would be on fire."
Speaking to the Pilot on Feb. 16, Father Clemence compared the situation to hearing news that your home is on fire and then learning that only the back shed is burning.
"It was something serious, yes, but it could have been much worse," he said.
Father Clemence said the parish has received an outpouring of support from the local community, the archdiocese, and former parishioners now living in different cities, states, and countries. Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley called the morning after the fire, while en route to Panama for World Youth Day, to let Father Clemence know he was praying for the parish. Marlborough mayor Arthur Vigeant came to visit Jan. 22. Nearby parishes offered the use of their churches for funerals and weddings previously scheduled at Immaculate Conception.
The upper church could accommodate 800 people, whereas the lower church, called St. Mary's Chapel, can accommodate only 400. The church was closed for the week after the fire, but by the weekend of Jan. 26-27 the parish resumed its regular schedule of Mass, confessions, and adoration, now taking place in the lower church. Father Clemence said recent Masses have been standing room only.
The parish held a rosary rally to give thanks on Feb. 2, praying in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
"That was a very powerful time to all be there intervening, saying the rosary and trying to say it in the other languages," Snyder said.
Father Clemence also announced on Facebook that the parish will celebrate each Saturday 7:30 a.m. Mass in honor of the Virgin Mary, starting on Feb. 9. This is in keeping with the practice of dedicating every Saturday to Mary, inspired by the tradition that her faith did not waver on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
There is no precise timetable for renovating the upper church. The original estimate, Father Clemence said, was between six months and one year. He said he has been in contact with the archdiocese finance department and that the parish will begin raising funds for renovations not covered by insurance.
Father Clemence said the hardest thing about the situation is that it requires a lot of his time, so he is less able to minister to the community's other needs.
"Nobody teaches us this in the seminary. (When) they say 'baptism by fire,' usually it's just an analogy," he joked.
Various groups within the parish have shifted their activities to different locations while the upper church is unusable.
"We had to do a little juggling as far as where we meet, but other than that we've really come together and made sure that we can all continue doing our work in the parish and for the people, sometimes just in different locations, but we really haven't skipped a beat. We've done very well in finding other places and coming together and doing our work. And I think actually it's pulled a lot of us even closer," Halfpenny said.
"I think if we just remain positive and do our work as we're supposed to and push on, things will come together," Halfpenny added.
Snyder, who coordinates Bible studies and participates in the choir, said they cannot rehearse in the choir loft, so they have been practicing around the organ in the lower church. The music books stored in the choir loft were damaged, so choir members who had their music made copies for those who lost theirs.
"It also makes you realize that it's not the building, it really is the Lord in the Eucharist and the community gathered there," Snyder said.