Fire believed to have started in kitchen area

May 14, 2019

A group of St. Matthew’s School seventh-graders gathered Monday morning outside of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church to recite the rosary. The day before a fire had engulfed the basement of the historic church in downtown Kalispell.

Religion and social studies teacher Doug Manaker instructed the students to walk around the church and school, while praying for the church and to Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters and builders. He said prayers were also in thanks that no one was injured and that the flames did not spread into the sanctuary on the main level.

According to the Rev. Rod Ermatinger, the fire is believed to have started in the kitchen area of the basement.

“When I heard about the fire last night, I thought we should pray,” Manaker said, noting that students are studying prayer in their religion class.

Although smoke was no longer billowing out the church windows as it had Sunday evening, an acrid smell still emanated from the open double doors of the church entrance.

Firefighters returned to the church Monday to finish their work before turning the building over to church officials. Kalispell Fire Department Chief Dave Dedman estimated damages to be around $150,000.

Two representatives with Thompson’s Restoration Fire and Water were also on site for a consultation as the church starts the process of restoration work.

Dallas Blodgett of Thompson’s Restoration said the largest loss occurred in the basement and said the main level, which sustained smoke damage, should be able to be cleaned and restored.

Ermatinger said Saturday and Sunday Masses will continue, but will be relocated to St. Matthew’s School gym. Weekday Masses are canceled this week and the coming weeks.

Sunday’s fire wasn’t the first fire to strike the historical building whose cornerstone was laid in 1910 and opened in 1911, according to Manaker. During an eighth-grade research project, it was learned that a fire broke out in 1938, which damaged an ornate altar that was replaced. This time, the fire wasn’t as severe in the sense that it was contained to the basement.

Understanding the historical significance of the structure, when it was determined no one was inside the building, firefighters took care to avoid damaging the stained glass windows and discussed ways to ventilate the smoke.

As part of the eight-grade research project, nine students painted one of the church’s stained glass windows depicting the “sacred heart of Jesus.”

While walking around the church, Manaker pointed to an intact basement window where he believed the acrylic painting was stored, not certain of it’s condition. Not long after returning to school, he learned that the painting survived the fire.

Outside the school, the painting was leaned against a fence. Art teacher Jennifer Griffith picked up a wet cloth and wiped away a fine layer of soot, beginning the process of restoration.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.