After devastating fire, St. Joseph’s prepares for Christmas Mass

Three days before Christmas, people carried poinsettias into the gymnasium at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and contemplated where and how to hang the large crucifix which, when removed from the wall behind the altar a few days prior, left a ghostly impression in the soot stains. 

Just returned from a morning meeting with architects, Father Jeff Meeuwsen headed into the kitchen behind the church’s office, and put a coffee pod into a maker. He’s been sleeping more, lately, and the upcoming Christmas Mass is something expected and familiar. 

He joked that even the Grinch couldn’t stop the Salem congregation.

“We’ve been without chairs, we’ve been without an office, we’ve been without everything. We’re like the people of Whoville. We just keep showing up. They couldn’t even steal Sunday Mass,” he said. 

Four months prior, around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 31, an arsonist lit the church’s recycling dumpster on fire. The flames climbed the brick walls and set the roof ablaze causing a five alarm fire that closed roads downtown for 10 hours as fire departments from across the region worked to smother it.

The building, located at 721 Chemeketa St. N.E., was dedicated in 1953. The fire mainly burned the roof of the church sacristies and main sanctuary, leaving extensive smoke damage.

By that afternoon, police had arrested 48-year-old Billy James Sweeten on first-degree arson charges. Sweeten was indicted in September and the case is still pending, according to court documents. He remains in custody at the Marion County jail as of Friday. 

Members of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church prepare to host Christmas mass in a gymnasium as repairs in the main building continue (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Meeuwsen had only been at St. Joesph’s for two months when he found himself on the sidewalk watching the church burn and fielding hundreds of calls and texts, including from his parents who still live in Roy, Oregon and saw him on TV.

“It was just intense,” he said of the first few days after the fire. “I had times where you hit a wall, like ‘bam’ and there was a lot of anxiety.”

Despite the chaos, he said he learned how to go into “get it done” mode from his dad, who worked on construction sites and the family farm.

They held Mass that same day at noon, with over 100 members meeting in the church parking lot under tents and umbrellas.

“We never stopped doing baptisms. We never stopped doing weddings. We never stopped doing quinceañeras. We just kept going,” he said. 

And people kept showing up, bringing umbrellas for the months when mass was outside. He said the church’s staff put in a lot of extra hours and the experience sharpened the team’s ability to plan and communicate.

Students at St. Joseph’s Academy only missed four days of school, with classes starting Sept. 11, but couldn’t get hot lunch for two months without a functional cafeteria. The church held Mass outside under tents until October, when they moved to the school gym. Until Thanksgiving, office workers bundled up because the damage broke the conjoined heating systems in the old building.

The church worked with several contractors for cleaning and renovations while balancing insurance requirements and documents. The fire relief fund lists a goal of $100,000 for restoration. They’ll be updating some things, like the antique heating systems, while refurbishing others.

“The goal is to keep, in the church, the traditional look but with the modern technology,” Meeuwsen said. “We’re going to have to repair everything, or replace.”

Inside the church, a white tarp now covers the warped hole in the ceiling above the altar. Black stains drip upward on the walls and the places the fire burned hottest have been torn away. Crews park construction equipment where worshippers once sat in pews.

The pipe organ, which once took up half the wall above and behind the worshippers, has been completely removed, piece by piece, to be cleaned, repaired and put back. The frescos will be removed and redone, and the stained glass windows will be repaired. The church is expecting a better idea of how long the renovations will take in the coming weeks.

The stained glass has been removed from windows at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church following a fire in August (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Before the current building was dedicated, parishioners began attending services in a rented building on the same block in downtown Salem starting in 1853, six years before Oregon gained statehood.

Meeuwsen said that even as he watched the fire burn, he knew it wouldn’t be the end of St. Joseph’s. His priority was keeping everyone together, and on the historic property.

“I had a lot of wonderful, generous offers to go other places, but my instincts told me ‘no, they want to be home. That’s why they come on Sunday, to be home,’” he said. “Okay, so come home. It’s a little messy, maybe we can’t fit everybody, but come home.”

Christmas Mass will take place in the gym, with 600 new chairs that arrived last week. They had to dig through different boxes that were scrambled during fire recovery to find the complete wooden Nativity set. The last piece was their patron saint, Joseph, who resurfaced Friday morning.

St. Joseph’s has a full advent calendar through Christmas, with services in Latin, English, Spanish and Vietnamese. There will be a Christmas Eve Vigil at 5:30 p.m., and a Midnight Mass starting at 11:30 p.m. with hymns. See a full schedule and link to the fire relief fund online.

A navitity scene made of wood from bethlehem survived the fire and is on display ahead of Christmas worship (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)
Four months later, soot blackens the bricks at the source of the August fire at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)
The view from beneath the hole in the ceiling that looms over the altar at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which has been covered with a white tarp (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)
The pews have been removed at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church following a devastating fire in August (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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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.