Stephen Previtera, of The Catholic Virginian
Friday, July 15, 2016 was a hot day. Temperatures had reached nearly 100 degrees by mid-afternoon as workmen using a blowtorch labored over the roof of St. Patrick’s rectory. A wisp of white smoke snaked skyward from under a metal seam and suddenly the top of the building was ablaze.
Stoked by heat-baked rafters, the flames traveled quickly through the front half of the rectory before surrendering to fire hoses from Richmond City fire fighters, with stations located only blocks away in this historic district of the city. The fire crews’ quick action is credited with saving the back half of the building.
Still, water, fire and smoke damage made the building uninhabitable, and it was condemned. Its residents at the time, Father Gino Rossi, Pastor of St. Patrick’s, Father Danny Cogut, and then Deacon, and now Father, Miguel Melendez had to be relocated. Family members provided accommodations for Father Rossi and Father Cogut, while Holy Rosary Parish became the temporary home of then Deacon Melendez, until he left Richmond for further study before the renovation was complete.
Father Rossi’s bedroom and bath were destroyed, as was another bedroom, the downstairs living room and study, and the foyer on both the first and second floors.
As reported in The Catholic Virginian soon after the event, fire fighters saved Father Rossi’s pet Betta fish, Fred, bringing out unscathed the only living creature then inside the rectory.
That night, the Church Hill neighborhood joined forces with parishioners to remove from the building what could be salvaged.
“The responses of the parishioners and residents were amazing,” recalls Father Rossi. “They came and helped us move our things out.”
Over the next eight months, work crews were the sole occupants of the rectory, rebuilding, repairing and restoring under the supervision of Father Rossi. Costs for the renovation were covered by the contractors’ insurance company.
Ceilings were raised, a new roof and rafters put in place, and some systems were updated and improved to bring the building back to life.
“In the end, it turned out better than it was before,” Father Rossi said. “You just have to get through it.”
Built contemporaneously with the Antebellum church next door, St. Patrick’s rectory had witnessed the great firestorm of 1865, as Confederate troops marched south across the James River and into oblivion. But this story of fire and its aftermath was to have a different ending.
“At the end of the day it is only material stuff,” Father Rossi pointed out.
One Betta fish named Fred might disagree, as he swims, now carefree, in that same little bowl in the front room where the fire fighters discovered him back on that hot day in July.