ROCKFORD, Illinois — Early morning thunderstorms are blamed for a fire that broke out in Rockford’s oldest Catholic church Aug. 8.

Firefighters on the scene suspected lightning ignited the flames that destroyed the roof on the back quarter of the 136-year-old church building, although an official cause of the fire had not yet been released.

Kim Carlson, St. James Parish business manager, said a neighbor reported a huge “bang” about 5:30 a.m., but it wasn’t until just before 7 a.m. that a passerby walking a dog smelled smoke at the west end of St. James Church and called police.

Firefighters arrived on the scene minutes afterward, according to St. James parochial administrator Father Jhonatan Sarmiento, who was in the rectory getting ready for morning Mass. Sarmiento was alerted of the fire and was able to remove and secure the Blessed Sacrament as firefighters arrived.

As the firefighters extended hoses and ladders to fight the flames, neighbors, parishioners, St. James staff and Rockford Bishop David J. Malloy gathered in the rain-soaked parking lot alongside the church to watch and pray.

Standing under an umbrella and watching in disbelief, Sarmiento said all he could think about was the long history of his parish and especially the people in that long history who had made St. James part of their lives.

“We just celebrated 169 years,” he told The Observer, Rockford’s diocesan newspaper. “Thinking about that, the community is so proud of the history, so many memories, traditions, history. It (St. James) is such an important part of the community, there are even parishioners who don’t live in the boundaries but this has always been their parish and they come here.”

“I keep thinking about all that and them,” he said. “It is sad.”

It took fire crews about an hour to knock down the flames that destroyed part of the roof. Two ladders were then extended to position firemen on the roof to start “opening it up” to check for more flames and hot spots, ensuring that the fire was completely out.

In a statement issued to local media and posted on its website, the Rockford Diocese said it was “fully cooperating with the Rockford Fire Department as the department completes its work to assess the stability of the church building and report its findings to the diocesan administration.”

“As soon as it is possible and pending that report, the diocese will then conduct an assessment of the church’s interior,” it said, adding that insurance adjusters were on the scene and would “assess the damage as soon as it is safe to do so.”

The parish office also planned to announced “alternative arrangements for Masses,” the statement added.

It was later reported three firefighters were transported to local hospitals for some injuries sustained early in the efforts to fight the three-alarm fire. The injuries were not life-threatening.

“It’s quite a tragedy this morning,” said Malloy as he watched the firefighters’ efforts. He expressed thanks to the fire department and the emergency people on the scene “and the great care that they have been taking for the church, for themselves, for everyone’s safety.”

“I am grateful to Father Sarmiento and to parishioners, some of whom are already turning out here. It’s good for us to be together even at a sad moment like this to commit ourselves to repair, renew and start again,” the bishop said.

He also asked for continued prayers for the injured firefighters.

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Wiegert is editor of The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford.