PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Shock, disbelief and depression have overcome Catholics in this small city, which is home to 19 elite young firefighters killed this week while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire.
“God allows bad things to happen to good people, and I don’t think anyone knows the true answer as to why,” said Father Darrin Merlino, parochial administrator of Sacred Heart parish in Prescott, Ariz. “I don’t know that there is anything I can say to comfort people. This has been the worst two weeks of my priesthood.”
Nineteen of the 20 members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting unit died on the night of June 30, after the Yarnell fire engulfed them.
It was the worst loss of firefighters in the U.S. since the 9/11 terror attacks, which caused the deaths of 343 New York Fire Department personnel.
Father Merlino, a priest for 13 years, said all of the deceased firefighters were married, most with born and/or unborn children. None was a registered member of Sacred Heart, but Father Merlino said he is learning that many of his parishioners knew some of them. He suspects several of the firefighters were Catholic.
“We don’t know for sure, because a lot of people in their early 20s don’t register with a parish. They just show up,” Father Merlino said, explaining that church staffers are trying to find out what they can about each firefighter who died.
At morning Mass Tuesday, Father Merlino spoke with parishioner Julie Rogers and learned she has taken refuge at a nearby Red Cross shelter after an ordered evacuation from her home in the foothills of the Weaver Mountains.
Rogers, a 63-year-old grandmother, spoke to the Register as she sat next to a shrine of rosaries, prayer cards and a crucifix she set up next to her cot. One of the deceased firefighters was the grandson of a friend, but the fire has done nothing to shake Rogers’ faith.
“It only strengthens my faith,” Rogers explained. “Nineteen people just gave their lives trying to save our little houses, so I think we need to focus on others and not worry about ourselves so much. And I don’t question God. I just try to accept. Happiness is submission to God’s will.”
The Yarnell Hill blaze came on the heels of the Doce Fire, which caused dozens of Sacred Heart parishioners to evacuate their homes. The fires coincide with the suicide of a well-known parishioner and a June 19 stroke suffered by Sacred Heart's pastor, Father Daryl Olds, who remained in serious condition Tuesday.
“Two major fires, a stroke, a suicide, and now 19 boys killed while doing their jobs,” Father Merlino told the Register. “I don’t know how to describe it. We are distraught. No one here knows what to say.”
Catholics throughout Arizona prepared Tuesday afternoon to assist fire victims and wondered whether a parish and rectory in the tiny town of Yarnell — at the center of the fire — would survive.
“At least one-half of the town of Yarnell has been destroyed, and we don’t know what Catholic structures may have been affected,” said Steve Capobres, vice president of business development for Catholic Charities Community Services of the Diocese of Phoenix.
Also amid the fire is Yarnell’s Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountain, a Catholic retreat and conference center known for a beautiful Stations of the Cross pathway through rocky terrain. No deaths or injuries have been reported in connection with any Catholic facilities in or near Yarnell.
“It’s a very intimate, peaceful and unique setting,” Capobres said of the shrine, which isn’t far from his boyhood home. “We just don’t know what the fire has and has not destroyed. No one can get in there to find out.”
Calls to St. Mary Mission, the only Catholic church in Yarnell, were not answered.
Debbie DiCarlo, director of parish and community services for the Diocese of Phoenix, said Arizona Catholics will do everything possible to assist fire victims — Catholics and others — but will need help from other parts of the country.
“We are shell-shocked in Phoenix,” DiCarlo told the Register late Tuesday. “This is family. People have lost brothers, sons, uncles. All of us are reeling, and it’s almost like we’re a bit paralyzed.”
DiCarlo has tried to no avail to reach her good friend Father Joy Vargas, pastor of St. Francis Catholic Church in Bagdad, Ariz., which is close to the fire. She believes Father Vargas and the church are fine, but said many Catholics near the fire have been disrupted by evacuations or are helping others in need.
A receptionist at Prescott’s Sacred Heart, some 30 miles from the fire, said the church office “has been inundated with calls.”
“We have calls from people needing help and from people wanting to help or to donate,” the woman said.
The Grieving Process
After the Tuesday morning Mass, Father Merlino visited the shelter with Rogers and found out the Red Cross was in desperate need of soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other personal items for evacuees. He immediately took action, soliciting and collecting donations of the needed items as part of his triage effort.
Thrown into the pastor’s role unexpectedly, due to Father Olds’ stroke, Father Merlino scrambled to organize prayers, charity and counseling. He will facilitate formal eulogies and a beginning of the grieving process at the parish on Monday, July 8.
“We will try to figure out how to deal with these families who have been left behind [by the deceased firefighters],” Father Merlino said. “You can’t blame God for this. Why he chose not to save these lives — I don’t know. That’s frustrating to contemplate. There are no answers, because none of us knows the mind of God.”
A few miles away, in Prescott Valley, parishioners at St. Germaine Catholic Church plan fundraisers and look for other ways to help. It’s too early for anyone to know the extent of the damage, let alone what help may be needed. As of late Tuesday, the fire was 100% uncontained and continued growing.
“It’s in our Catholic DNA to help,” said Father Dan Vollmer, pastor of St. Germaine. “We already have organizations in place when something like this happens. If you look through all of Catholic history, you will see that we are all about helping out in crisis. That’s why we have so many orphanages, hospitals and schools.”
Father Vollmer said all Catholics can help by praying and, if possible, donating money. To donate, visit: http://www.catholiccharitiesaz.org/
The Solace of the Cross
When people ask him why this would happen, Father Vollmer knows what he will say.
“You may not understand why,” Father Vollmer said. “Jesus said, ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’ We can say in prayer, ‘I don’t understand why this happened, but help me. Come into my life and heal me.’ God created a world in which bad things happen. Then he entered into it and paid the price on the cross.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.