SHADY SPRING, West Virginia — More than two weeks after a 145-year-old Catholic church near Shady Spring was destroyed by fire, law enforcement officials announced July 12 that two suspects were arrested and charged with felonies for a blaze officials confirmed was arson.
St. Colman Church was built on Irish Mountain in the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in 1877 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.
The original families and their descendants are buried at the cemetery that sits at the edge of the forest behind the now charred remains of their beloved church. Masses were celebrated a few times a year at St. Colman usually on Memorial Day Weekend.
Bishop Mark E. Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston praised “the hard work of the West Virginia State Police” in the investigation that led to the arrests of Braxton Allan Miller, 18, of Charleston, and James Dean Elmore, 19, of Beckley, West Virginia.
Miller was charged with arson and conspiracy, both felonies, and Elmore with conspiracy and accessory after the fact, which also are felony charges.
The bishop thanked law enforcement “on behalf of the families who settled Irish Mountain generations ago, the local parishioners who lovingly maintained our historic chapel and cemetery there, and all those who have visited St. Colman over the years.”
In his July 12 statement, Brennan cited the efforts of Trooper D.L. Daniels in particular and also thanked the State Fire Marshal’s Office for its part in the investigation.
According to WVNS-TV 59, Daniels was dispatched to the church the morning of June 26. He said firefighters at the scene told him the blaze had been set the previous night, but no one called 911 until that morning.
Several area fire stations responded to the call, but “the church had been completely burned to the ground,” Daniels was quoted as saying.
The news outlet reported that Daniels was told by an anonymous caller that his, the caller’s, nephew and a group of friends had been at the church “drinking and partying, and one of the boys had set the church on fire.”
A police dog brought to the scene “indicated that an accelerant was present,” WVNS-TV 59 said.
When the diocese first learned of the fire, Bishop Brennan expressed his sorrow for the Catholic community of the area.
“We are united with them and we sympathize with the loss of this lovely chapel,” he said, hoping the people would not be discouraged. “The spirit of devotion where that church has been for 145 years can continue on that site where many of their ancestors worshipped and where many are buried.”
A June 27 diocesan statement said the diocese was saddened to hear of the devastating fire but was thankful “no one was inside the building when the fire occurred. … The structure is a total loss.”
“The diocese is truly grateful for the response of so many fire departments in the area,” it said, but added that the little whitewashed wooden church “burned quickly and nothing can be saved.”
The cemetery will continue “to be maintained,” it said.
St. Colman was designated a chapel years ago and was part of a cluster of churches under St. Patrick Parish in Hinton, West Virginia.
Divine Word Father Romeo Bacalso, administrator of the cluster, said the loss of St. Colman’s is tragic and overwhelming for the Catholic faithful of the community.
“Our parishioners and I are heartbroken,” Bacalso told The Catholic Spirit, the diocesan newspaper. “It’s our treasure of faith. We gather as one family and community at St. Colman … at least twice a year and clean/visit quarterly.”
It was known as “the Little Catholic Church in the Woods,” Art Sanda said of Raleigh County’s beloved chapel.
A member of St. Patrick Parish in Hinton, Sanda has been involved at the little church for more than 20 years, and he said there are discussions underway about a fitting way to memorialize it.
“What was lost can’t be restored, it can’t be replaced,” he said. “At the same time, the feeling is very strong that something has to be done to continue the spirit of St. Colman.”
Over the years, thousands of people have visited St. Colman, said Bacalso. “We have dozens of completed guest books full of wonderful comments on the serenity and beauty of St. Colman, the peace and tranquility that it brought to them while taking a moment to reflect and to meditate.”
Visitors were Catholics and non-Catholics alike and locals as well as people from other cities, counties, states and countries, he said.
In recent years, sporadic vandalism has been a problem, the priest said. When that would happen, Sanda and fellow parishioners would make the necessary repairs.
“I have spoken to many who expressed dismay and bewilderment at what has happened,” Sanda said, but they’re also determined “that something worthwhile absolutely must rise from the ashes of St. Colman, some monument that memorializes” it and “keeps alive the pleasure and peace” visitors have found there.
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Editor’s Note: A fund has been established at St. Patrick Parish called “For the Restoration of the Spirit of St. Colman.” Donations may be made payable to St. Colman/St. Patrick and mailed to St. Patrick Catholic Church, 2nd Ave., Hinton, WV 25951.
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Rowan is executive editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.