Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

A fire Wednesday, Oct. 10, destroyed a Williamsburg residence the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi operates for 10 men with severe mental illness, leaving nothing but ashes and a brick chimney. No one was seriously injured in the fire, according to Sister Agnes Narocho, the order’s director and administrator for the Williamsburg area. 

Sister Agnes said the fire at 2204 Jolly Pond Road started around 4:30 a.m. According to a James City County Fire Department report, the alarm sounded at 5:14 a.m. and firefighters were on the scene at 5:29 a.m. New Kent Volunteer Department, York County Department of Fire and Life Safety, and Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire and Emergency Services gave mutual aid in extinguishing the fire which was still smoldering in the mid-afternoon.

The residence is one of the order’s six houses in Williamsburg and Quinton providing long-term assisted living and day care for the severely mentally ill as well as the severely developmentally, intellectually, and physically disabled. Collectively more than 33 men and women live in the homes. The sisters also run a senior center and are active in the community, serving as Eucharistic ministers, catechists, greeters, and sacristans at area parishes. They also visit the sick in Williamsburg and Quinton, Sister Agnes said.

“They are very much part of the community,” said Msgr. Timothy Keeney, pastor of St. Bede Parish in Williamsburg. “They do a tremendous amount of work.”

The sisters, whose motherhouse is in Uganda, came to the Williamsburg area 21 years ago. Their efforts are funded primarily through Social Security and the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services. The Little Sisters were paying a mortgage on the home, which Sister Agnes estimated to be valued at $700,000. They plan to build a new residence once insurance pays, but they will need donations as well, she said.

Although the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, it started with a burning mattress in an upstairs bedroom. A resident dragged his mattress to the bathroom and tried to put it in the tub, but his effort caused the fire to spread quickly. Upon hearing the smoke detector alarm, Sister Agnes, who was on duty at the residence that night, ran through the house to rouse the men from sleep. Eight of the men were able to run out the door, but the burning mattress blocked the stairway for two residents, and they had to jump from their second-story bedroom window.  She said that the residents have had monthly fire drills. 

After the fire, the men from the home were initially staying at a staff house. Plans at press time were to transfer most of the men temporarily to assisted living facilities in the area while the sisters looked for a home to rent during reconstruction of the residence. 

Relocating them is tricky because the house doubled as an office, resulting in the loss of client records. Sister Agnes is working with community service boards and mental health day treatment programs to obtain duplicate records so the men can be assessed prior to placement in the temporary facilities. She said James City County Social Services and case managers of area community services boards will help with the relocations.

James City County Social Services helped the sisters get an emergency supply of the residents’ medications. Many of the medications which burned in the fire were not ready to be refilled, and insurance companies won’t pay for the replacements, Sister Agnes said, so the Red Cross is picking up the tab for the interim medications. 

Williamsburg House of Mercy, an outreach mission of St. Bede Parish, provided bedding for the men and donated $400 in Walmart gift cards. Local residents donated clothing, and Williamsburg Christian Church took the men shopping for clothes at Walmart. 

The residents have quickly adapted to their predicament, Sister Agnes said.

“Everyone is doing really well. We were shaken, but we are a little bit better today, and tomorrow we will be a little bit better (than today),” she told The Catholic Virginian at press time.  

Editor’s note: Along with various hygiene items, monetary donations to the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi can be sent to Williamsburg House of Mercy at 10 Harrison Ave., Williamsburg, Va., 23185. Please designate “Sister Agnes Fund” in the memo line.