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Tenn. bishop finds inspiration amid rubble after fire at Catholic agency

Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Tenn., reviews the damage caused by a fire in the administrative offices of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee during a tour of the facility Dec. 1, 2021. Investigators determined the Nov. 28 blaze was arson. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Knoxville)

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Flashlight in hand, Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, was walking through the fire-damaged administrative offices of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, when he came across a small wooden crucifix hanging on a wall with a rosary draped over it.

The bishop was inspired to see that amid the rubble throughout the one-story building Dec. 1 the iconic items remained untouched.

“It didn’t have any soot on it,” he told Catholic News Service after his hourlong tour to view the damage caused by a Nov. 28 nighttime blaze that fire department investigators determined to be arson.

“I took the rosary. I have it with me now,” he said.

Bishop Stika said he plans to frame the crucifix and the rosary so it can be displayed in the building once the fire damage is repaired and employees return months from now.

Police discovered the fire while responding to an alarm at the building at about 10:30 p.m. They found a broken window and smoke pouring from the building that is located north of downtown Knoxville.

Firefighters on the scene found a gasoline can and a matchbook near the window the perpetrator broke to gain entry, Bishop Stika said.

Fire gutted much of the building’s interior, and smoke and water damage was prevalent throughout areas untouched by flames, the bishop said.

The building’s interior is a total loss, but the structure remained intact, he added. The value of the damage is undetermined.

“It makes you sick to your stomach,” Bishop Stika said.

In addition to administrative offices, some services were offered at the facility, located in a neighborhood that has seen some revitalization in recent years. The building housed the Knoxville Pregnancy Help Center, operated by Catholic Charities, and a shop where women could buy reduced-price items for infants.

A diocesan spokesman said about 10 full-time people worked in the building alongside dozens of volunteers who serve some 100 clients.

Employees have relocated to a nearby thrift store and food pantry operated by Ladies of Charity and to Holy Ghost Parish, blocks away, to continue operations.

“We’re looking now, if the city allows us, to rent a trailer and put it on the parking lot (at the damaged building) so the women can continue to come,” Bishop Stika said.

Catholic Charities staffers and volunteers were onsite when the bishop arrived, greeting him and telling him how they are continuing their programs.

“That was my major objective,” the bishop explained about his visit. “I wanted them to know that I care and the diocese cares, and we’re here for them.”

Fire investigators continued to look for the person or people responsible.

Bishop Stika was unsure if the fire was set by someone with “some type of vendetta” against Catholic Charities or the Catholic Church.

Vandalism has plagued Catholic sites across the country in recent months with statues being damaged, tombstones in cemeteries overturned and fires set at some facilities.

“We will be more vigilant,” he said, adding that the diocese has advised its parishes to step up security measures.

“The saddest part of this is somebody, male or female, if they get caught, they’re going to go to prison,” Bishop Stika said. “If they want to get revenge or demonstrate anger … they’re going to have to live with that. That building is a building of hope that reaches out to a lot of people.”

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