Faith Blazes Forth in California Fire Disasters

Catholics have drawn on the Eucharist and their Church to help their neighbors survive some of the greatest wildfires in California’s history.

Religious statues are seen among fire-damaged buildings at Cardinal Newman High School Oct. 10 in Santa Rosa, California.
Religious statues are seen among fire-damaged buildings at Cardinal Newman High School Oct. 10 in Santa Rosa, California. (photo: David McNew/Getty Images / David McNew/Getty Images)

NAPA, California — What began as an ordinary night’s rest for Barbara McCall and her husband, Wynn Hayes, ended abruptly before dawn Oct. 9, when they awoke to a stranger pounding on their front door. Making her way to the door in the dark, McCall met a young man she did not recognize telling her the nearby foothills were on fire, and she needed to get out.

Looking outside, McCall already felt the stifling heat from the distant orange glow against the night sky. Leaving with their two cats and a strongbox of personal papers, the husband and wife drove out of their neighborhood to escape the inferno that would soon claim their home.

The wildfires that whipped through Northern California stretched over several counties, from Mendocino in the north to Solano in the south. But the three most serious wildfires, called Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas — already among the most destructive fires in California history — hit Napa and Sonoma counties the hardest.

All told, the damage has been estimated at more than $1.2 billion; 42 people lost their lives, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimated that more than 8,400 buildings had been affected by the fires. The death toll makes “the fire series the deadliest in California history,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

McCall, the secretary for the rector of St. Eugene’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Santa Rosa, told the Register she has been living with several other families on the cathedral grounds while her family puts their life back together. She and her husband have found an apartment and expect to live there for the next few years while their house is rebuilt.

McCall said that she is grateful to God for her life and that without her faith, she would be “very depressed.”

“I know that God makes good things happen out of bad things, so I’m not at all worried about my future,” she said.

The loss of almost all of her possessions, and the generosity of her parish in responding to everyone’s needs, has brought her closer to her faith.

McCall praised her pastor, Father Frank Epperson, as well as the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa for their ministry in the crisis. A parish hall was opened for several days as a temporary shelter, and evacuees were served meals by the parish. She said the visits of Bishop Robert Vasa to the evacuation shelter helped raise the spirits of the men and women staying there.

“They really appreciated him stopping in,” she said. “It meant a lot to have their bishop talk with them.”

Bishop Vasa has been visiting evacuation shelters in his diocese, and at least some of the families he’s seen are parents and students from Cardinal Newman High School, which on the Oct. 9 feast day of its namesake, Blessed John Henry Newman, lost much of its campus in the fire. The school has not been given permission to return to the existing parts of the campus yet, and staff have been exploring alternative arrangements for the rest of the year.

Principal Graham Rutherford expressed some frustration at the lack of clarity from the local government on when student life could resume at the campus. Instead of being able to outline a plan to return and work to achieve it, he said, “We’re working to make plans that are just options.”

The principal is trying to salvage for students the regular events of a high-school day — clubs, practices and Friday night games — and give them back some sense of normal life. For people who have lost so much, Rutherford said, something like a high-school football game becomes one thing they still have.

Rutherford said he believes some long-term good can emerge from this disaster.

“If the school community stays together,” he said, “and works through it, it will have been a valuable educational experience and will help a lot of students in being more mature in how they deal with things.”

Directing Aid Amid Chaos

Many Catholics who fled the blaze are actively engaged in keeping the Church’s ministries going amid the crisis.

Jack Tibbetts, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Sonoma County, evacuated Oct. 9 around 3am. He oversaw St. Vincent de Paul’s response as the staff kept up their usual dining-room ministry for the homeless and expanded to serving food to people in the shelters.

“People were able to find a direction and pursue it,” he told the Register. One of the St. Vincent de Paul Society cooks settled his family in a shelter before coming to cook for the dining room, because “cooking is how he tries to bring joy to people’s lives.”

The fire has brought different Catholic agencies together. The local Catholic Charities also reached out to the St. Vincent de Paul Society for help in providing food for some of the homeless shelters. Tibbetts said it was the first time the two organizations had the opportunity to work together.

The society is providing a “house in a box” service at the local assistance center for those who need basic items to furnish an apartment. Tibbetts said that they saw a significant number of displaced families did not have the means to refurnish themselves quickly after the fire.

Another group the St. Vincent de Paul Society hopes to serve are undocumented families that are not able to access Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance.

Tibbetts added that he was awed by the generosity of people’s response to the crisis, but underscored the recovery will be long.

“We expect to be working on this for years,” he said.


The Eucharist and the Fire

Father David Jenuwine at St. Apollinaris in Napa told the Register that his parish’s response to the fire began with the Eucharist.

“I’m a priest — what am I supposed to do?” he explained.

Entering the church in complete darkness, Father Jenuwine gathered all the candles available to illuminate the Eucharist exposed in the monstrance. He then proceeded with the normal routine of Mass at 7am and 8:45am as the Nuns and Atlas fires burned east and west of Napa. The parish transitioned organically from offering coffee and doughnuts after Mass to housing a gym full of evacuees, as well as distributing thousands of donated items to the surrounding communities.

“God knew what we needed, and it showed up,” Father Jenuwine said. He emphasized that they never stopped praying and continued to offer Mass and pray the Rosary. On Oct. 13, the centennial of the last Marian apparition at Fatima, he preached on the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart and how it could be seen in the parish’s triumph over the tragedy affecting their communities.

Mark Brumley, chief executive officer of Ignatius Press and a parishioner at St. Apollinaris, told the Register that he was “very proud to be part of a parish that saw response to the fires as part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.”

“I’m really thankful to be part of that community,” he said.

Brumley thought that, for a number of Catholics, the wildfires would illuminate the social dimension of the Church’s mission. More people, he said, would come to know their neighbors and their neighbors’ needs in the future, including those of renters and day laborers hardest hit by the fires.


Rebuilding and Replanting 

Father Jenuwine said that the Napa Valley region was used to the cycle of planting, growth, harvesting and replanting, and he praised the resilience of the community. There might be some who would move because of the cost or duration of rebuilding, but the priest felt the long-term forecast was bright for the region.

Anna Hickey, president of Rogers Vineyards, told the Register that small farmers and personal wineries will be strongly affected by the fires.

“Every small farmer is one crop away from being done,” she said.

Although in her area a significant number of Cabernet grapes remain to be picked, overall the region was lucky to be at the end of the season.

Garrett Busch, chief executive officer of Trinitas Cellars, told the Register the first week after the fire began had been “crazy and scary,” but his business had been fortunate to escape the fire.

However, he added, one of the most significant impacts of the wildfires to the local businesses would be if tourists canceled their trips to the region. Busch said it is important for them to know that Napa is still open for business, and one important way to help the community is to plan a trip to the region and support local businesses.

Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.



For more information or to donate to the recovery:

Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa

Diocese of Santa Rosa

St. Vincent de Paul Sonoma County