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By Hiroko Sato


TOWNSEND — Laura Virostko stood in front of the fire-ravaged St. John The Evangelist Parish activity center and choked back tears.

The image of flames shooting from the windows the night before is seared into her memory. About 45 firefighters converged at the scene to battle the three-alarm blaze that also heavily damaged her friend’s house next door. But all Virostko could now think of was how rescue workers consoled her friend and how many residents offered help to the family, whose children are now staying with the Virostkos.

“I’m so proud of my community,” Virostko said with tears in her eyes.

“It’s telling He is watching over us,” a St. John parishioner Allison Murphy said, looking up to the giant cross still donning the side of the activity center. “We are not grieving anyone, and that’s a good thing.”

Local residents, including many parishioners at St. John, counted their blessings yesterday after a three-alarm fire destroyed the church’s two-story activity center at 14 Brookline St. and scorched parts of the home next door at 16 Brookline St.

Townsend Fire Chief Donald Klein said yesterday that electrical problems in the garage that belongs to 16 Brookline St. are believed to have started the fire, spreading to the structures on the both sides of the driveway.

The fire, which started at about 6 p.m., quickly engulfed the church activity center, a historical house that parishioner Brian Mohan said St. John acquired 3 1/2 years ago and renovated.

Getting mutual aid took some time, Klein said. And even after fellow firefighters from five surrounding towns arrived, the cold weather made their job difficult, turning water into ice quickly, Klein said.

By yesterday morning, those who attended the regular morning Mass at St. John and local residents tried to take it all in while looking on the charred activity center with already boarded-up first-floor windows. The upstairs windows offered a stream of bystanders a peak into piles of charred wood and beams hanging inside what used to be six classrooms for religious education. Murphy said she believes both the education center and the adjacent house were built in the 18th century.

“It’s a tear-jerker,” said Auguste Fortin, a Townsend resident and parishioner of 52 years.

Had the fire started one hour later, there would have been about 15 people, including many children, inside the activity center, because there were two classes scheduled, Mohan and some other parishioners said. There was no one inside when the fire started.

“Everyone is relieved that no one got hurt,” said Murphy, one of parishioners who gathered at the church for morning Mass yesterday.

The owners of the house at 16 Brookline St., Timothy and Ann Chernosky, are shaken but doing OK, family friends said. Anton Chernosky, who lives with his parents and sister at the house Thursday night that his family had “friends coming out of the woodwork” offering them a place to stay.

Virostko and her husband, Mike, said the American Red Cross has arranged temporary housing at a hotel for the family. While the owner stays at the hotel, the children, ranging in age from high school to 23, and a family pet are with the Virostkos, the couple said.

“The Fire Department did a phenomenal job” saving the house and taking care of the family after they got out of the house unharmed, Mike Virostko said.

The firefighters also did not forget about the parishioners who weren’t there. Sue Ann Woolfrey, a parishioner of 25 years, held tightly onto a soot-covered cross that she says Townsend firefighter Mike Sodano took off the wall of a classroom after the fire.

“I want to cry,” Woolfrey said.

In a small town, everybody knows everyone else, Woolfrey said; Sodano is a plumber for the church when not serving as a firefighter.

Fortin’s wife, Louise, said a new pastor is starting his job at the church today. But, she is confident that parishioners will help him get through the tough tasks ahead of him.

“This is a special parish that sticks together in times like this,” Murphy said.