Lightning damages Polish Hill church

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A Polish Hill church will need to repair beams inside its landmark dome charred by a Tuesday lightning strike that caused white smoke over the building -- not the kind of white smoke Catholics usually want to see.

Lightning struck the dome of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church around 4:30 p.m., when a call about the smoke from two passers-by drew firefighters to Brereton Street.

The Rev. Joe Swierczynski, the church's pastor, today said inspectors and insurance representatives are still evaluating the damage.

"It could have been a lot worse. ... Like someone said to me, 'Maybe the cross [on top of the church dome] is what saved you,'" the pastor, 75, joked.

The strike hit the top of the dome and caused little damage to the outside of the structure, but Father Swierczynski said many charred wooden supports inside the dome must be replaced.

Firefighters had to snake their hoses through the church's balcony and storage room to reach the cupola of the central dome, and water damage inside the building itself is significant. Though the church's insurance should cover much of the repairs, Father Swierczynski said he hasn't yet had the heart to see if the church's special Nativity set, in a now-soggy box, will have to be replaced.

The Rev. Robert Guay, a regional vicar in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and parish council member Mark Dobies were at the church this morning to help inspectors assess the damage. Fans whirred around the church to dry spots still wet from the firefighters' hoses.

"There's still some question marks," Father Guay said. "There's a lot of charring. ... It's more inside than external, but they're gonna look at everything to make sure there's nothing else. It's such an old building, they just wanted to check."

A report from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire initially estimated the damage would cost about $40,000 to repair. The church, built in 1904, does have lightning rods on top of the 21-story copper dome and has never been struck before.

Mr. Dobies, 59, of Polish Hill, was unloading boxes of food from his car today in preparation for an annual summer festival at Immaculate Heart of Mary on Saturday. The church's regular 8 a.m. daily Masses have been canceled for the time being, and Mr. Dobies said he doesn't know yet if the church will be open for the Mass that always accompanies the outdoor festival.

Whether the church is open or not, Father Swierczynski said his parishioners and neighbors have been checking in all day to see what they can do to help.

"There was a ton of people here who wanted to work last night," he said. "They came out of the goodness of their hearts."

mobilehome - neigh_north

Megan Doyle; or 412-263-1953. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: First Published July 17, 2013 8:00 PM


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