By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — The Rev. Chris Casey says he forgives the people who set a fire inside the former Our Lady of Good Counsel School last weekend which disrupted religious education classes and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
“That’s what we were taught by Jesus, to be forgiving,” Casey said yesterday. “God forgives us in the same way we forgive. It doesn’t mean we don’t want justice, but the bigger picture is that we care for their salvation.”
The classes and meetings will resume tomorrow in rooms in the three-story building which were not affected by the fire. The fire was contained to Julie Hall inside the building. Damage has been estimated at $150,000, according to interim Fire Chief John Marsh.
“It’s critical for them to have that support in the lives of people in recovery,” said Casey, pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish about the 12-step programs. “We don’t want them to go without meeting for a long time.”
Casey said the intruders entered the building late Saturday night or early Sunday through a secured fire exit door and set fire to two metal cabinets filled with papers, art supplies, religious education books and other materials belonging to Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous.
The first of two alarms was sounded at 1 a.m. Sunday.
Before leaving the building, the intruders pulled the fire alarm, Casey said.
“Obviously, the people who set the fire panicked,” he said. “They didn’t realize that it was going to be so huge, which is probably why they pulled the alarm.”
“I was shocked and disappointed because this building is part of the community,” Casey said.
In this weekend’s church bulletin, Casey mentioned the fire and asked for prayers for the people responsible. He cited several Bible passages from Matthew 5:44 which says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The flame from the papers which were lit went up to the ceiling, Marsh said. Firefighters peeled the plaster and removed ceiling to make sure the fire had not gotten into the walls.
“The fact that the alarm went off and we got there early enough and it wasn’t much of, helped,” Marsh said. The last fire unit left the scene at 2:30 a.m., he said.
Marsh said the cause of the fire was under investigation by Lawrence Fire Department and the State Fire Marshall.
Founded as St. Augustine School, it later became Our Lady of Good Counsel. The school has been closed since 2010, when Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Patrick schools merged to form Lawrence Catholic Academy. The building erected in 1921 was rented to Lawrence Public Schools which used it for Phoenix Academy until last June.
But Casey said the building is used almost daily by various community groups.
In addition to the alcoholic and narcotic anonymous meetings, the Tower Hill Neighborhood Association holds its meetings in Julie Hall and its where the parish hosts its Christmas fair, Vacation Bible School and the Summer Fun program. The building is also home to the Merrimack Valley Catholic Basketball Association, a male and female basketball leagues.
“The building is very much part of the community and when you see something like this happening, it impacts a lot of people,” Casey said.
Workers from ServiceMaster have been at St. Julie Hall cleaning up the soot, water and fire damage left behind.
Jim Massey, facilities manager at Our Lady of Good Counsel said they ripped up the tiled floor damaged by water and cleaned up the soot on the walls, which will be repainted.
“With an old building like this, I’m glad it wasn’t worse. We don’t want to lose this building because its such a big part of Tower Hill,” Massey said.
Casey recovered 26 Bibles in good condition from the debris.