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The Fire at St. Michael’s Chapel
A Message from Head of School Andrew Vadnais
April 18, 2017
The Fire at St. Michael’s Chapel
Dear Alumni, Alumnae, and Friends:
As a Head of School, it is the sound at 11:30 PM that you never want to hear. Pounding -- urgent, pleading, forceful door pounding -- prying you awake and challenging you to alertness.
“OMG, the Chapel is on fire” came the call from the Pounder as I opened the door. Just as quickly, she vanished into the night to call 9-1-1. That quick thinking on her part, in the end, probably saved the main hall of St. Michael’s Chapel from total destruction. (The Kent Fire Department Chief later pulled me aside and admitted that if they had arrived only twenty minutes later, St. Michael’s would have been totally lost.)
By the time I ran out the door and up the hill, the smoke was billowing out of the bell tower and flames were visible in the Sacristy. Within minutes, the entire Sacristy was engulfed in flames and thick smoke was coming from the eves and doors of the main Chapel. Those of us watching were heartbroken.
Here, I must give a shout-out to the brave men and women of the five responding fire stations – Kent, Warren, Gaylordsville, The Water Witch Hose Co, and Northville. Special thanks must go the Kent Volunteer Fire Department. They arrived with the first trucks within twelve minutes of our call. Their decisive actions and bravery amidst the open flames was beyond impressive. Even now as I reflect back to the events of Tuesday night, I am struck by their courage and willingness to act in such dangerous circumstances.
I want you all to know that The Kent Volunteer Fire Department saved St. Michael’s Chapel that night, pure and simple.
His Holiness The Dalai Lama says:
“Pain in this World is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
Why We Are Blessed:
1. The Time of Day
This fire occurred at an optimal time – 11:30 PM. All the boys had just been checked in for the night in each dorm, so we knew no student could be inside the Chapel. The wind was blowing south-to-north and the alert boys in Woodward Dormitory smelled smoke and reported it. (Given the wind patterns, none of us close to the Chapel detected any smoke odor.) The dorm parent on duty – AKA the Pounder – followed her instincts, found the source, and called 9-1-1.
2. The Boys and Faculty Rise to the Challenge in the Crisis
This is a question that you ask yourself as Head of School: will our community be able to follow protocols and act decisively and compassionately when called to do so?
The boys and the faculty performed in outstanding fashion – working into the early morning hours moving a piano, furniture, fire-warmed hymnals, melted candles, etc. out of harm’s way and into the McCoun common room. The McCoun boys arranged everything in the common room and played host to various First Responders.
Although a crisis, it was an awesome feeling to witness our community rise to a challenge – one that few of us had ever faced. As Father Klots said that night, “It is a blessing to see the faculty and the boys in action.”
Yesterday morning, we held a special all-community meeting. After explaining all the news and developments, Father Klots asked once again for volunteers to dig in to help us prepare the Assembly Room for hosting worship services. Nearly every boy’s hand shot up. There was not an adult in that room that did not have tears in their eyes.
3. Father Stephen Klots
Throughout South Kent’s illustrious history there have always been iconic figures that seemed larger than the Community at any given time. No need to name them all here. You know them. Well, I put Father Klots in this category. I was standing just outside the fire zone when Father Klots came running from his home in the Lawrence Faculty Village. When he saw the Sacristy engulfed in flames, his body slumped and his face dropped. A moment later, he hugged me and whispered in my ear “We will rebuild.” Then, I lost sight of him. I later learned that once the consecrated hosts had been handed out of the fire zone by the First Responders, Father went around to each dorm offering Communion and Prayers to all the boys. Finally, at about 2:30 AM, I felt a hand on my shoulder in the dark and heard “May the Lord Be With You” as a Communion host was passed into my hands. Father and I hugged and promised that we would rise above this.
4. The Board of Trustees & Parent Response
As early as 11:40 PM – only 20 minutes after the fire was detected -- I received prayers and offers of help from parents in Kuwait, China, and all over the U.S. In addition, our cultural exchange group currently in the Czech Republic immediately saw the news on Twitter/FaceBook and took it upon themselves to go into the main Cathedral in Prague to light candles in prayer for St. Michael’s Chapel and the Boys of South Kent. (Social media is as curious a thing as the human family is beautiful.)
All day yesterday, I have received prayers, offers of help, and simply positive energy from parents and Board members. John Carey, Chair of the South Kent Corporation, was on the phone with me throughout the night, offering help, guidance, and support – all of it, so very much appreciated.
So, where are we now?
The cause of the fire, at this point, is thought to be an electrical issue inside the light switch plate by the Sacristy sink -- although this is a preliminary hypothesis at this point.
Today, the fire insurance folks descend on us to determine the actual cost of this ordeal and to let us know how much of the main Chapel must be rebuilt. To be sure, the entire Sacristy is a total loss, including all the candles, vestments, Chapel logs, etc. stored there.
In closing, it saddens me to see the original building fabric of St. Michael’s Chapel damaged. This is the same fabric that so many of the South Kent greats walked on and looked at over the years. It is a humbling experience.
However, we will rebuild and be a stronger School Community for having experienced this ordeal together. These will be the boys who years from now will be able to say, “I was there that night for the St. Michael’s Chapel fire.”