Fire destroyed historic chapel but not spirit, resilience of faithful, says bishop

Smoldering ruins were all that remained of the 142-year-old St. John the Evangelist Chapel in Bahner, Mo., part of St. Vincent de Paul Parish of Pettis County, after an early-morning blaze sparked by lightning, Aug. 1, 2023. That afternoon and evening parishioners came together to consider their loss. (OSV News/Jay Nies, The Catholic Missourian)

BAHNER, Mo. (OSV News) -- The ruins of St. John the Evangelist Chapel in Bahner were still smoldering when thoughts turned to finding the tabernacle and properly reverencing Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

The chapel, which was part of St. Vincent de Paul Parish of Pettis County, in the Jefferson City Diocese, was destroyed in an early morning blaze Aug. 1 that was sparked by lightning.

"I told Bishop (W. Shawn) McKnight that we're going to do everything we can to give proper respect, devotion, love and honor to Jesus Christ, who was with us in that fire and with us in that tabernacle and who, more importantly, is with us here this night," said Father Joseph Corel, pastor, during a Eucharistic Holy Hour held in the nearby St. John the Evangelist Community Center after the fire.

The steeple of the 142-year-old chapel, where generations of parishioners had encountered Christ in the sacraments, was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm early that morning, with flames quickly engulfing the structure and rendering it and its contents a total loss. No one was injured and sacramental records were not damaged. Parish officials were attending to administrative matters.

Parishioners and visitors filled the Community Center that evening for a Holy Hour with Exposition and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Together, they sang hymns expressing hope, trust and reverence.

Father Corel cautioned against allowing the natural emotions of anger, frustration and sadness to bring division to the community."We will continue to persevere, the way we have been doing for generations," he told the gathering.

"It's natural in a time like this to want answers about the future, but tonight is too soon for that," he said. "We're taking care of our grief, our mourning, attending to what was, and sharing stories of all the things that happened in this beautiful, sacred place."

He turned the focus back to the Eucharist, noting, "The Lord is here with us tonight, just as he is every time we gather for Mass.He gives himself totally to us. Let us give him our very selves tonight, and place all of this in his hands."

In a tweet, Bishop McKnight said that the flames may have consumed the physical structure of St. John the Evangelist Chapel, "but they cannot destroy the spirit and resilience that have defined the chapel community of St. John in St. Vincent de Paul Parish for years."

"We must remember that a church is not just a physical building," he stated. "It is the people who gather within its walls."

He noted that the members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish -- created by joining the two former Sedalia parishes and the former Bahner mission together -- "now belong to a wider group of parishioners for the benefit of all."

"Now, more than ever, the support of this community is needed to carry each other through this challenging chapter," he said.

St. John the Evangelist was founded by nine Catholic families from what is now Germany, who settled around present-day Bahner in 1837. They gathered in each other's homes each Sunday for prayer and religious instruction.

Jesuit Father Ferdinand Helias, now known as the Apostle of Central Missouri, became the first priest to visit the community and offer Mass there.

In recent years, weekend Masses at St. John have been offered on Saturday evenings, with adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament held every Wednesday.

"The people here work hard and take you in and make you part of the community," said Michael Bahner. "I hope that's not going to be lost" after the fire, he said. "It would be a tragedy for people never to get to experience the kind of camaraderie we have."


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