St. Joseph Before Fire

Celebrating in the Midst of Adversity

Fr. Jeff

Father Jeff Meeuwsen ‘95, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church / Iglesia de San Jose in Salem, articulated his vision for his new parish at the installation Mass he celebrated this past July. Invoking Genesis, he told parishioners and family members who gathered that he hopes the people of Salem will “go to Joseph” when they need education, help, and spiritual direction.

A devastating fire occurred at the church just eight weeks later and threatened to derail those plans. However, Fr. Jeff’s faith, optimism, and Valiant spirit are driving him onward as he leads his parish and community through the rebuilding process.

When Fr. Jeff arrived at the oldest church in Salem, which is also one of the largest and most diverse in Oregon, he spoke of getting to know his new parishioners and fellow priests while working together to bridge language barriers. When asked if he was a “Spanish” priest, or an “English” priest, or a “Latin” priest, he would simply reply that he was a Catholic priest who is there to serve everyone to the best of his ability. Now his mission to bring people together remains the same, but with the added responsibility of overseeing a major restoration of the historic church building.

The 4-alarm blaze was started in a nearby dumpster in the early morning hours on Aug. 31. The fire spread into the building and eventually into the confined spaces of the attic above the sanctuary. Thankfully, no one was injured. However, a large portion of the roof was destroyed, and a monumental fresco behind the altar depicting the dreams of St. Joseph suffered extensive fire, smoke and water damage.

St. Joseph Fire

“More than 30 fire apparatuses and more than 100 firefighters responded and battled the extensive blaze for several hours,” said City of Salem Fire Chief Nick Niblock. “This was a great tragedy for our community. It was a beautiful building with a vibrant congregation, but I am confident that they will rebuild.”

Masses moved to the parking lot, and a temporary covering was installed over the roof while interior work got underway. Without a permanent home for the tabernacle, a classroom in the school was called into service to be used for the sacred space.

The cleanup process has been arduous, as workers and volunteers moved debris, then the Stations of the Cross, pews, and anything else that was salvageable. Items that have been saved are being cleaned and stored until they can be safely moved back into the church.

Stations Of The Cross
The Stations of the Cross survived the blaze and are being protected till they can be placed back in the Chapel

Fr. Jeff reflected that his time at Valley Catholic laid a strong foundation for his ability to “Celebrate God and Life” through adversity. The class of 1995 was the first co-ed cohort since 1905, and the first to have a boys’ basketball team. Their record was dismal, and as Fr. Jeff recalls, they were losing games by up to 80 points. It was discouraging, but they celebrated small victories — Fr. Jeff joked that those “victories” meant “losing by fewer points.” Two years later when the Valiants finally won a game, the triumph was even sweeter for the seven teammates who had been through so much together.

As he now faces long days and unforeseen setbacks, Fr. Jeff notes that the Sisters helped instill in him the powers of hard work and prayer. “Checking in with the Lord helped me persevere when I was a student working my way through high school and often spending up to 16 hours a day on campus,” said Fr. Jeff. Those values remain strong in him now as he navigates these challenging circumstances. He and everyone at St. Joseph’s appreciate the prayers, donations and support they have received from around the country.

Before the damage had been fully assessed, there were signs of hope — just days after the fire, during the 5 p.m. service on Saturday, a rainbow appeared over the parking lot where Mass was celebrated.

“Our hope in Jesus is always worth celebrating,” said Fr. Jeff. “He gives us the strength and the opportunity to celebrate in the midst of every trial and I am grateful for that.”

Father Jeff was the 2016 recipient of Valley Catholic’s Distinguished Alumni Award and was most recently pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Aloha.

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