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Update on Fire in Purranque, Chile


Since the fire, which investigators suspect was started by an unknown person or persons early on Sunday, February 7, Missionaries in Purranque have been meeting with civil authorities, investigators and representatives from their insurance company in an attempt to learn the cause of the fire and come up with a plan to recover from it.

Before the sun had set on the day of a terrible fire that destroyed the interior of San Sebastian Church in Purranque, Chile, parish leaders were already meeting to plan a way to rebuild.

Since the fire, which investigators suspect was started by an unknown person or persons early on Sunday, February 7, Missionaries in Purranque have been meeting with civil authorities, investigators and representatives from their insurance company in an attempt to learn the cause of the fire and come up with a plan to recover from it.

Both Fr. Nicanor Azua, C.PP.S., who was the pastor at the time of the fire, and Fr. Jorge Gomez, C.PP.S., who will become the parish’s new pastor effective March 1, were in Santiago at the time of the fire. Fr. Claudio Varas, C.PP.S., who was visiting family in Purranque and covering at the parish, received the first alert of the fire at 4:15 a.m. on February 7.

Shortly after, Frs. Azua and Gomez were informed of the fire. “We had two questions,” Fr. Gomez said. “How did this happen, and how are we going to rebuild?”

Their first task was to get back to Purranque, a 10-hour drive south of Santiago—but Fr. Humberto Jana, C.PP.S., helped arrange for flights for them to get back to the site as quickly as possible.

They found that the church building’s exterior support structure was still in place, while the interior had been destroyed by the fire. The parish had celebrated the completion of an interior repainting project in January, Fr. Gomez said.

They also found a faith community that, while shocked and saddened by the fire, was quick to rally and is willing and eager to rebuild. “Thirteen hours after the fire, our parish council was meeting,” he said.

 Missionaries, who have been in ministry in Purranque for more than 60 years, were not surprised. The church is an important focal point of the faith family, which includes the city of Purranque, with a population of 8,000 and an additional 5,000 to 6,000 people in the rural area surrounding it.

 Fr. Antonio Baus, C.PP.S., of the Chilean Vicariate, notes that San Sebastian, “the southernmost C.PP.S. parish in the world, was inaugurated in 1949. Its first pastor was Fr. Ambrose Lengerich, C.PP.S., who dedicated his pastorship to building a new church building that was dedicated in 1952. Earthquakes in 1958 and 1960 condemned the main monumental brick and mortar entrance, which had to be demolished in the early sixties. The rest of the building was built of wood and was able to be rescued for future generations after some repairs. The fire destroyed much of what had lasted for some 50 years.”

Meetings were held throughout the rest of February among C.PP.S. members (including Fr. Luis Briones, C.PP.S., the newly elected director of the vicariate, and Fr. Varas, who becomes pariochial vicar effective March 1) and civil authorities.

With no concrete plans in place on the reconstruction, it’s impossible to tell how much the project will cost, or how much shortfall will be left after any insurance pay-out.

“From the beginning, people were thinking about fundraisers,” Fr. Gomez said.

A special fund has been set up for the project at a bank in Purranque. Donations from the U.S. may be made through the Society of the Precious Blood, Cincinnati Province.

“This is a long-term thing. It’s not going to be a quick project,” Fr. Gomez said. “It’s important to ask God for the grace to focus on the long-term. It’s easy to get discouraged because it is such a long task. But we have to ask God for the strength to keep going.”

In the meantime, the people of San Sebastian are celebrating daily Mass on a patio in the parish compound. Sunday Mass is celebrated at Precious Blood School, which is run by a congregation of Precious Blood sisters in Chile (not connected with the Dayton-based Sisters of the Precious Blood).

Missionaries at the parish are reminding the people that they are the Church. “What we’ve been focusing on since the fire is that what burned was a physical thing—but our church did not burn. Our faith did not burn,” Fr. Gomez said. “We were not burned. We were not damaged. Because we entered into Lent so close to

the time of the fire, we’ve used the theme of ashes to connect ourselves with our burnt building and our efforts to go on with our life of faith.

“Out of those ashes, we are going to rebuild. We know this because we put our trust in the risen Christ.”

Fr. Baus added, “Please pray for our Missionaries in the Chilean Vicariate, and the faith family of San Sebastian as they work together to rebuild the church.”



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