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Sandwich church, community pulling together after fire

Suffering and trials do not define people for Father Andrew Hougan.

Instead, it is their response to those matters that defines them, he said. Hougan presides over Saint Paul the Apostle Catholic Church at 340 W. Arnold Road in Sandwich. On May 20, the exterior of the church started on fire. No one was hurt but the church sustained damage that is still in need of repair. In response to the fire, the church and Sandwich community has pulled together to help the church any way they can, Hougan said.

“We’re recovering spiritually and physically,” Hougan said.

Hougan said support for the church’s recovery has come from parishioners, city officials, state and federal officials and the Diocese of Rockford. The building is a visible sign of the Catholic faith and it lives within people’s hearts and spirits, he said.

“The church building itself is near and dear to people’s hearts because it is a symbol of a greater reality,” Hougan said. “So they are coming forward to say ‘I am a part of that greater reality.’”

He said it’s been humbling and overwhelming to have the larger community in Sandwich offer their assistance with needs such as food or physical labor to remove the debris. The church has a good relationship with Sandwich Mayor Rick Olson and Fire Chief Reed Johnson, he said.

Marilyn Ellerby, business manager for the church, said the support has been great as well. She counted the young families, contractors and church staff as helpful with the recovery. When the fire happened, Ellerby said she was devastated, but thankful the fire did not completely ruin the church.

“We’re very fortunate that our parish center is fully operational; that our fire did not affect our working area,” Ellerby said.

Hougan said a structural analysis of the church will be done, as well as debris removal to help restore the church. Items of financial, spiritual and sentimental value will be salvaged as well. The church also is working with an insurance company to complete the necessary steps for restoration.

For now, Masses are held at Kane Hall in the Parish Center next to the church. The room was used for services when the church underwent remodeling in 2011. Daily Masses resumed this week, Hougan said.

Even though the church had a heat, smoke and fire detection system, it was only for the interior. The fire that happened on May 20 was outside of the church. Authorities said the origin of the fire was near landscaping mulch outside. Hougan said mulch and any other combustible material will not be put around the church’s exterior in the future. He said they may install a rock garden instead.

Fire inspectors from state and federal agencies investigated the fire and determined it was accidental. When a fire is deemed accidental, inspectors do not expend resources to find the source. He said the cause of the fire is still not known.

“At this point, it’s speculation,” Hougan said.

Ellerby commended Hougan for his spiritual and executive direction during the church’s recovery. Hougan said he’s been getting through this time personally with his faith, prayers from the larger community and the parishioner team assembled for the recovery.

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