COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history continued to burn through the Black Forest east of Colorado Springs at press time, dozens of Catholics are among more than 400 families who’ve lost their homes.
Others had been ordered to evacuate Catholic institutions in the forest, including Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church, the church’s rectory, the Benet Hill Monastery and Our Lady of the Angels Friary.
"It was ominous," said Capuchin Father Jim Moster, guardian of Our Lady of the Angels Friary.
"At night you could see big orange flames, leaping high in the sky in the trees south and west of us. We, frankly, had been keeping an eye on it and had talked about it and decided we would stay until we saw a real reason to get out of there."
They left when a deputy from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department knocked on the door and politely ordered the Franciscan priests and brothers to leave.
"That real reason to leave, which we had been looking for, was provided by the sheriff’s department, and I intend to write a note of thanks," said Father Moster, who was staying in a Franciscan friary in downtown Colorado Springs when he spoke with the Register.
The friary’s four priests and two brothers remained on mandatory evacuation June 14, but they did not let the fire interrupt their ministry of taking confessions at their permanent location in a Colorado Springs shopping mall. As of that Friday evening, the fire was only 30% contained and continued burning out of control.
Father Moster believed the friary will be spared because it is not directly in the trees.
"Our real concerns are for the people living directly in the path of the flames," Father Moster said. "The people and their animals, trying to get them out of there to safety, was quite a thing to watch. We pray for all of these people, of course. People were very good working together, helping one another."
Parish Gets Support
All Catholic institutions in the forest appeared to have survived the fire as of late that Friday night, but services had been canceled indefinitely at Our Lady of the Pines.
"My heart breaks for all of you in our parish family," wrote Father Andrzej Szczesnowicz, pastor of the church, in a letter written June 13 to parishioners, many of whom lost homes to the blaze. "We are blessed that our area parishes are rallying to our aid with prayers and support for us."
The letter continued, "I realize that we are only at the beginning of this unexpected chapter in our parish history, but together we can truly build strength."
All activities at the church were canceled until further notice, but the pastor announced a special liturgy on June 16 at nearby St. Patrick’s Church, followed by a parish reception.
Just up the road, volunteers from St. Peter’s Catholic Parish in Monument hosted a Rosary session in a park June 13 and prayed for rain and calming of winds. On June 14, the winds slowed, and a light rain fell on the fire — each assisting firefighters in their effort to contain the fire.
The Black Forest is full of families with horses, alpacas and other recreational livestock, and before the Franciscans were evacuated from the Our Lady of the Angels Friary, they offered some of their vacant pasture land to a woman who needed a safer place for her horse.
Lauren Witt was among those who had to evacuate a family (including four children) and a horse. She believes God sent a Christian warrior to her rescue.
"We could see flames shooting up across the road. We don’t have our own trailer, and panic started to set in," Witt said.
Meanwhile, Witt saw 12-year-old Natalie Smith running from flames while trying to lead a horse to safety. Just as all seemed hopeless, Larry Killiam showed up with a horse trailer. Killiam owns and operates HorseGate Ministry, an organization that uses horses to teach the Gospel to children at churches of all denominations.
"The little girl said, ‘I am not leaving my horse,’" Killiam told the Register. "I just tried to remain calm. I always try to show people that calmness, in the midst of trouble and danger, is the result of being a believer in Jesus Christ."
Killiam helped Witt and Smith and boarded the horses at his own stable. When the fire encroached on his property, and authorities forced him to evacuate, Killiam drove his own horses and others to Flying W Ranch — a tourist attraction in the mountains west of the Black Forest that was destroyed by last summer’s Waldo Canyon fire.
Witt cannot say enough about the owners of Flying W Ranch, who remain out of business and continue trying to recover from Waldo.
"After what they went through in the Waldo Canyon fires, they are paying it forward, backward and sideways," Witt said.
Father Moster believes the fire made the presence of God obvious to everyone willing to observe and open their hearts.
"There is always the question: ‘Why would God allow this to happen?’ We know there is a bigger and better purpose," Father Moster explained. "One is that God brings good out of tragedy. We see it in the unlimited generosity of friends and neighbors. Everyone is doing so much to help. The generosity is such a beautiful thing to see. And I’m sure God is doing an awful lot with this that we cannot even see."
Among 41,000-plus evacuees were Mark Rohlena, CEO of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Colorado Springs, his wife (who’s expecting in September) and the couple’s other four children, ranging in age from 2 to 9. Rohlena remained confident on June 14 that his home was unharmed and would remain that way.
"We haven’t been in our home since Tuesday," Rohlena told the Register that Friday. "So I’m dealing with family concerns and at the same time trying to make sure Catholic Charities is doing all it can to help the greater community."
Rohlena’s wife and children were with family in Denver, while Mark stayed with a relative close to his office in downtown Colorado Springs.
For the Rohlena family and thousands of others, the fire created an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. The Rohlenas moved from Denver to their Black Forest dream home last summer, just as the Waldo fire — today the second-most destructive fire in Colorado history — ripped through mountain neighborhoods on the opposite side of town. Before the family could unpack boxes, Mark Rohlena was busy trying to help evacuees.
Catholic Charities, which runs the region’s largest soup kitchen near the diocesan cathedral downtown, was asked to feed evacuees last summer. This year, the agency is feeding the county’s emergency personnel while trying to help those who’ve lost their homes with food, shelter and clothing. It is also feeding evacuees and volunteers in the course of operating its regular meal services at the Marion House Soup Kitchen.
"It’s really an extension of what we do all the time," Rohlena said. "It’s a natural role for us to help people in need."
"In a circumstance like this, we see the best and the worst in people," Rohlena said. "But mostly it makes you realize that there is much more good than bad in people. I have been strengthened in my faith, in that it’s easy to see that God is active and working in our lives at a time like this."
writes from Colorado.