St. Joseph Catholic School plans to reopen Monday

St. Joseph Catholic School plans to welcome students back on Monday, Sept. 11, after a fire burned the roof of the church sacristies and main sanctuary last week. 

The planned start is one week later than school leaders had planned for the 175 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade who attend. That delay has allowed time to clean the school and address the smoke damage to portions of the building.

Though portions of the church faced extensive damage, school Principal Deb Dewar said the school is largely untouched beyond the smell of the fire. Classes were scheduled to begin Tuesday, Sept. 5.

The delayed start will come out of the calendar’s built-in snow days.

“Everything’s actually moving along really well,” she said.

In the week since the fire, every surface of the school has been cleaned, the water in the basement has been cleared and they plan to do an air quality test on Friday. The school will also be rerouting one of its emergency fire exits, Dewar said, which will require building a temporary wall that will be inspected on Friday.

“Our last step is making sure the kids can get out of the building, in case of another emergency, safely without interfering with any of the construction zones,” she said.

Air scrubbers will be on all weekend to combat the lingering smell of smoke at the school.
The fire began in a dumpster on church property, at 721 Chemeketa St N.E., around 2:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31, and quickly grew into a five-alarm blaze requiring about 20 vehicles and 40 firefighters to get under control with crews spraying down hotspots through the afternoon.

There were no injuries. Police said Thursday afternoon they had arrested a suspect, 48-year-old Billy J. Sweeten, on first-degree arson charges. Sweeten is lodged at the Marion County Jail, and was arraigned on Wednesday, Sept. 6.

The church does not have a damage cost estimate currently, Father Jeff Meeuwsen said in a statement Wednesday. Prosecutors alleged in court documents that the damage exceeded $50,000.

Dewar is looking forward to an eventful school year. The school will have a baked potato booth at the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest next week, and the annual jog-a thon will return.

“Just getting back to the normal activities that we do, knowing that we’ve got a really great community that supports us,” she said. “We’re looking forward to just going out and showing that community that we are still going forward, we’re still getting things done and taking care of our people.”

They’ll also be making the most of the abnormal situation. Dewar plans to make the rebuilding process a learning opportunity to teach kids about what goes into a large construction project.

“What kid doesn’t love seeing the big tractors?” she said, and laughed.

The church doesn’t know when worship will return to the main sanctuary, but it will continue to hold its regular mass schedule “somewhere on the Parish Property.” The day of the fire last week, they held mass outside under canopies, according to Meeuwsen’s statement. All other regular scheduled meetings are canceled until further notice. 

The Archdiocese of Portland has established a fire relief fund for St. Joseph. Donations can be made online here.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.