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January 22 , 2007VOL. 45, NO. 2Oakland, CA

articles list

Richmond parish resilient after church blaze

Catholic schools find new ways to increase their enrollments

Service learning expands in elementary school classrooms

St. Lawrence O’Toole authors publish anthology of their stories

Decades of generous service mark this year’s Seton Award winners

School for Pastoral Ministry graduates 31

2007 Bishop’s Appeal to focus on education, youth, family programs

Millionaire’s generosity reflects the past kindness from strangers

Father William Dunn, retired pastor of two parishes in Oakland Diocese, dies

Congress has more religious diversity than ever before

2006 saw a high number of quality films released

Lay ecclesial ministers to hold fifth annual convocation

•Sister Mary Dominic Engelhard, OP

•Sister Clare Wagstaffe, CHS

























Richmond parish resilient after church blaze

Father Filiberto Barrera surveys the fire damage in the sanctuary of St. Cornelius Church. An arsonist threw a flammable liquid on the altar and lit it with a match.
The fire caused smoke damage to all the statues in the church.
Dianna Portillo, 9, holds hands with other religious education students during the Spanish Mass in the parish gym on the Sunday after the fire.

After celebrating Mass in the gym, Father Barrera blesses images of Our Lady of Guadalupe brought to the liturgy by parishioners.


Two weeks after a Richmond man entered St. Cornelius Church during an evening choir practice and set fire to the altar, parishioners are still reeling from the temporary loss of their worship space. But they have come forth with donations, offers of help with the cleanup, and an impressive show of adaptability.

Some of those with weddings and quincenieras planned for the church will have their liturgies in the school gym, where the community is now worshipping, said parish staff. Others are rescheduling these events for future dates when the church will again be in use. Neighboring parishes have offered the use of their churches as well.

Initial estimates put the damage from the Jan. 5 blaze at about $500,000. The fire was contained to the sanctuary, but heavy smoke filled the entire church so everything must be cleaned and painted, said Alex Hernandez, diocesan director of facilities. Although parishioners have volunteered to help clean the church, the work must be done by professionals because of insurance requirements.

Hernandez said it is likely that the ceiling tiles, which contained asbestos, will be removed. Insurance will cover the majority of all costs with the parish responsible for a small deductible.

Police have arrested 40-year-old Robert Mills of San Pablo on arson charges. Choir members said he came into the church carrying a gasoline container and told them to leave as he began dousing the altar and nativity scene with a liquid which he lit.

The fire spread quickly. No one was injured during the Friday night incident. The church is located on Macdonald Avenue across the street from the Richmond police station.

When Mills left the church, parishioners followed him to nearby Nicholl Park where police arrested him. He is believed to be a transient with a long history of mental health problems.

Father Filiberto Barrera, pastor, who was visiting family in Mexico after the Christmas holiday returned immediately to Richmond. The school gym was quickly turned into a worship space ready for Sunday Masses. Neighboring St. Mark Parish sent over chairs to help with seating, but the 11 a.m. Spanish Mass was so crowded that some parishioners had to stand outside.

The gym will continue to be used for weekend liturgies; smaller gatherings such as baptisms and weekday Masses will take place in a small chapel in the parish offices.

Repairs will take at least three months. “It is fortunate that this is a masonry building,” Hernandez said. “Otherwise, the whole structure might have been destroyed.” The fire went to two alarms. Firefighters brought the blaze under control in 15 minutes.

Hernandez said the parish will use the fire as an opportunity to update the sanctuary, which had a pre-Vatican II altar along the back wall and a second altar in front.

While the church is being repaired, the community will hold a prayer vigil outside the church on the fifth of each month at 7 p.m.



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