Basement fire damages historic St. Matthew’s Church

May 13, 2019

Bill Hensleigh was inside the historic St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in downtown Kalispell a little after 5 p.m. on Sunday, praying as he walked past stained glass windows. The windows were open at the bottom to let in the evening breeze. When he reached a stained glass window of Saint Thomas Aquinas located on the north side of the building, he stopped, noticing a wisp of smoke.

Hensleigh went down to the basement to investigate.

“And there was nothing there,” he said, so he went upstairs and walked back to the window where he first noticed the smoke.

“But it wasn’t a wisp,” Hensleigh said. It was starting to billow.”

Realizing the situation was worsening, and without a cellphone, he rushed over to the church’s Social Concerns building and alerted Michael Huekhang who called 911.

Kalispell Fire Department and Kalispell Police Department arrived quickly. No one was inside the building by the time crews arrived and no injuries were reported. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation, but no foul play is suspected.

“Within seven to 10 minutes everyone shows up, the fire department, the cops. After what I witnessed, they are extraordinarily quick, fast and efficient, which is remarkable because, in effect, this is our Notre Dame,” he said, referring to an April 15 fire that damaged the medieval Catholic cathedral in Paris.

St. Matthew’s Church celebrated 100 years in 2017.

Just that morning he attended Mass with his mother, Helen, to celebrate Mother’s Day.

“It’s a nice place to come and pray after mass.” Hensleigh said, who grew up attending the church on Main Street.

Kalispell Fire Department Chief Dave Dedman said flames were visible from outside the church when crews arrived. It took roughly 30 minutes to knock down the blaze. By 6 p.m. crews were still actively working in the basement, searching for heat in the walls.

The sound of glass shattering could be heard as crews broke additional basement windows with fire axes, while the double doors at the front of the church were opened to increase ventilation.

“There’s no ventilation in the basement, there’s only one way in,” Dedman said. “So that’s the way it was getting the smoke outside.”

Dedman and a crew member discussed tactics of how to improve ventilation in the basement and avoid damaging the stained glass of the main level sanctuary.

Not far from the basement entrance, the Rev. Rod Ermatinger watched firefighters work, fielded phone calls and spoke with some parishioners who had gathered outside along with neighborhood residents who formed small crowds around the historic building. A woman brought a water jug and cups over to firefighters.

People gathered included some of St. Matthew’s young parishioners who had celebrated their first communion just hours before at a special 2 p.m. Mass where they later enjoyed cake and coffee in the basement. Ermatinger said Saturday night St. Matthew’s School eighth-graders gave presentations on the history of the church.

While it was too early to estimate the magnitude of the damage, Dedman didn’t sound confident in what would be salvageable throughout the church due to the severity of the smoke.

For now, all that Ermatinger, parishioners and neighborhood residents could do was watch and wait.

Evergreen, Smith Valley, West Valley and Whitefish fire departments also responded.

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