YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – As the world mourns after a devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, people in Youngstown remember their own loss of a historic cathedral near the downtown area.
But the story of the St. Columba Cathedral fire is proof that a cathedral can be built again and community members can move on.
St. Columba Cathedral sits on Wood Street — its facade and bell tower standing watch over downtown Youngstown. It was on this same site 65 years ago that the original St. Columba was destroyed by fire.
“Lightning struck the roof and that’s how the fire began,” said Monsignor James Kolp.
Monsignor Kolp was a young priest at St. Columba when on the night of Sept. 2, 1954, someone told him the cathedral was on fire. With the wood crackling, he went into the church.
“Went to the tabernacle and took out the blessed sacrament and so that it was saved from any danger,” he said.
Then Bishop Emmet Walsh watched from across the street, at one point being interviewed by a WKBN radio reporter.
As word of the fire spread, a large crowd gathered.
“And came and just watched and wept and prayed, similar to what’s happening in Paris right now,” said Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
In the days that followed, more people viewed the damage.
An aerial shot showed the roof was completely gone, having fallen directly into the church. It was later determined that the fire had been smoldering between the ceiling and roof for a while, so by the time firefighters arrived there was no hope.
“Cathedrals have burned down before. There are cathedrals that have been built four and five times because of a fire,” said Bishop George Murry.
The decision to rebuild was made quickly. By 1958, a new St. Columba Cathedral was built on the same spot where the previous church had burned down.
“That was the leadership of the church saying we have to move on and recreate our cathedral,” Lawson said.
One of the relics saved from the old church was the head of the statue of St. Joseph, which is today on display at St. Columba.
All these years later, the fire is mentioned only in times like these. But at the time, it was a big deal.
“Well, emotionally I think it was one of greatest fires because it was a symbol of the Catholic Christian faith for tens of thousands of people here in the Mahoning Valley,” Lawson said.
Bishop Murry pointed out that the similarities between the fires at St. Columba and Notre Dame are strikingly similar in that both started in the roofs, which, though covered by plaster, were constructed mostly of wood. It was the wood, in both cases, that burned.