By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service
Flashlight in hand, Bishop Richard F. Stika 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.
Bishop Stika was inspired to see that, amid the rubble throughout the one-story building, the iconic items remained untouched.
“It didn’t have any soot on it,” Bishop Stika said after his hour-long tour on Dec. 1 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, according to the bishop.
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.
About 10 full-time employees worked in the building alongside dozens of volunteers who serve some 100 clients.
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,” estruction, and it’s sad to think that someone would do this intentionally.”
The building also was home to about 10 full-time employees, dozens of volunteers, and served more than 100 clients.
Fire and insurance investigators concluded their probe Dec. 1. The building was insured, and discussions are taking place on how it will be replaced or rebuilt. In the meantime, security has been increased at Catholic Charities offices and facilities.
“A great concern that I have is for the staff,” Bishop Stika said. “The clients will continue to be served. It might be a little inconvenient, but I am concerned for the staff because they feel vulnerable. That’s not a great feeling.”
“We just take it one day at a time. We can’t guess why this happened or why somebody would do this. But we believe in the work and the outreach, and we believe in our clients. So, we will take extra care dealing with the staff and the volunteers. We will provide counseling if they want it. Whatever they need. We will move forward,” the bishop added.
Knoxville Police Department officers and the Knoxville Fire Department responded to the Dameron Avenue offices at around 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 28, where police officers found the building ablaze. It took firefighters about two hours to extinguish the flames.
According to fire department investigators, someone apparently broke into the building and started the fire, and Mrs. Healy said the incident appears to be a random act.
“The investigators are receiving leads and are following up on those leads,” Mrs. Healy said.
Catholic Charities plans to be operating from temporary offices this month, and the employees look forward to moving into new, rebuilt offices in 2023.
“We’re definitely rebuilding. We think it will be at least 12 months before we’re in a new building on Dameron Avenue,” Mrs. Healy said. “The good news is that we are still reachable via our main phone number and our Dameron Avenue mailing address.”