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Waiting to Rise From the Ashes

A Fullerton congregation that lost its building to an arson fire suffers delay in building a temporary structure.


Worshipers at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church often shudder during the early morning Masses delivered by Father Ignatius M. Kissel. The message of God's love is inspiring, but it's the biting chill in the air that gets to them the most these days.

"It's cold," said Dorothy Flowers, a 20-year member of the parish, "particularly when it's 42 degrees outside. I don't know how long we can stand it."

The Fullerton church lost its sanctuary in August, when someone intentionally started a fire that gutted the brick structure where for the past 50 years, congregants have prayed, married and seen loved ones lain to rest.

It was the second arson fire to strike the church in four months. A smaller blaze in May caused $7,500 in damage to the church school.

Fire investigators have declared both fires to be the result of arson, but no suspects have been identified.

It will take about two years to tear down and rebuild the sanctuary. A huge canopy tent was erected on the church grounds in September to provide a temporary place of worship while a temporary structure is built.

Parish officials had hoped to have the structure--with doors, cushioned chairs and wings for special sacraments--in place in time for the holidays, but there have been delays and church members have grown weary of the drafty quarters and rows of flimsy plastic folding chairs.

City officials require the same planning checks and reviews that any structure would need before a building permit is issued. Church officials, unfamiliar with the process, had expected a speedy turnaround.

"They want to make sure all their Ts are crossed and their I's dotted," Kissel said. "Let's just say, they're going by the book."

Kissel goes by a different book when he addresses the situation before his congregation, which has dropped in numbers since the fire. He draws from Scripture for words of encouragement, and uses song--like the Quaker Hymn--to inspire:

"No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I'm clinging. Since love is lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?"

"I'm trying to be very positive," said Kissel, whose patience is wearing thin as the holidays approach. "But when I go up there this weekend, I don't know what to say to them anymore."

The process seems to be at a near standstill for a parish yearning to move on and recover from tragedy, he said.

But Hadi Tabatabaee, chief building official with the city, said Fullerton's interest lies in seeing that the job is done right, and that the building is safe for the people who will worship in it. There have been no unusual delays, he said. The church didn't submit its application for the temporary building until mid-October.

The building official said authorities are waiting for some additional paperwork. "As soon as we get that, we should be able to give them the permit," he said.

The temporary sanctuary would be built off Gilbert Avenue with room to seat 800 people in cushioned chairs attached by hymnal racks. An altar would be built with a sacristy behind it, and secluded areas would be designated for reconciliation or confession.

A pile of steel girders, delivered to the church several weeks ago, sits on a blacktop waiting to be fitted together to frame the temporary building, which would be tightly fitted with a canvas-like material. A decorative cement floor would enhance the look and acoustics of the building, Kissel said.

The process--and waiting--has been difficult for members of the parish. But Agnes Rus, a six-year member of the church, said good things have come from the adversity. Parishioners now stop to talk with one another more than they used to. They have broken from the routine and are meeting new people in a church they have attended for years.

"The tent doesn't bother me," Rus said. "It's still a place of worship and we are still a community worshiping together. For that, we can be thankful."

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