Hope Rises From the Ashes for the Parish of Paradise
St. Thomas More parish survived the Camp Fire inferno. Three years later, its parishioners are making the parish better than ever as their town rebuilds.
PARADISE, Calif. — The Camp Fire wildfire burned Paradise to the ground. Greg and Yvonne Kidder’s home, along with 14,000 other residences in this working-class and retiree community in California, went up in smoke as 20,000 people fled before an inferno fed by 50 mph winds.
“That fire basically just chased us down the hill,” Greg Kidder told the Register, recalling the Nov. 8, 2018, catastrophe that struck their town that early morning. The fire moved so fast, 85 residents of Paradise could not escape fast enough and perished in the blaze.
St. Thomas More parish’s church and school incredibly survived the conflagration. Brave firefighters from a nearby station did their best to hold back the rushing flames, but the fight came down to one glass window that cracked but held under the heat to protect the interior.
“A single pane of glass is all that prevented us from losing the church,” Greg said. However, the parish rectory, the parish hall and other parish community buildings were destroyed.
More than 700 families called St. Thomas More parish their church home, and while most escaped, three beloved parishioners lost their lives. Everyone else was homeless.
“We were still quite in a daze when all that happened,” Greg Kidder said. But in that hour of crisis, Kidder and a core group went into action, working the phones to check up on each parishioner, see what they needed, or try to find out the whereabouts of loved ones. “We concentrated on getting the parish back together.”
Three years later, St. Thomas More parish, like Paradise itself, is rising to new life from the ashes. But parishioners are very much focused on renewal, doing outreach and evangelization to become the “church on the ridge” that God has called them to be.
Kidder is today the parish steward of St. Thomas More, an appointment made by Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto, to oversee the day-to-day care of the parish. Since the parish no longer has a priest in residence, the bishop appointed Father Martin Ramat, pastor of Divine Savior Catholic Church in Chico, California, as St. Thomas More’s supervising priest. He comes by on Wednesdays to offer confession and offers the noon Sunday Mass. While the title is new, the dynamic is centuries-old for the Catholic Church in the Americas. Lay catechists, such as Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, who is up for sainthood, would work collaboratively with priests in providing pastoral care. The catechists provided stable community leadership to keep the church going, while the priests would form the catechists and provide the sacraments to multiple churches.
Kidder said that while the dynamic has taken some time to work out, he believes the diocese is studying this model for its potential to be replicated for other parishes.
“The Catholic Church needs to be here on the ridge, to have a presence as a people of faith,” he said.
This collaborative process keeps the St. Thomas More parish functioning, and growing, as the town rebuilds. Three years ago, 75 families attended Mass. Now, the parish has 130 registered families, with 150 people regularly worshipping on Sunday. And they have 15 youth preparing for the sacrament of confirmation.
“We’re not just going to survive,” Kidder said. “We’re going to thrive.”
But Paradise’s rebuilding has been slow: Only 1,000 new homes are being rebuilt each year. Right now, 3,000 homes are built, meaning the town is at least a decade away from reaching its former housing capacity.
“It’s going to be a very slow process,” Kidder said. “But we’re in it for the long haul.”
The sudden destruction of Paradise by fire was spiritually traumatic. Yvonne Kidder, Greg’s wife, told the Register that after the destruction of her home, and all that death, she “never wanted to see Paradise again.” Yvonne felt angry with God at the time.
“I said, ‘If nothing is impossible with our God, why did he do that to all of us?’” she said.
However, since then, Yvonne said her faith has become much “different and deeper than before.”
“The grace of God is so much bigger than I ever imagined,” she said. Their new home is much simpler, her neighbors are kind, and she does not miss the old life.
“I’ll live out my life in Paradise with peace and love,” she said. “I love my life like never before.”
Yvonne and 24 other women of St. Thomas More have formed a Ladies Guild, with a special emphasis on living out the charism of hospitality.
“It is more successful every time we meet,” she said. “I’m so happy the church is here, and the community is bonding greatly.”
St. Thomas More parish has had relationships both with Catholic Charities and the Order of Malta Western Association during the rebuilding process.
“The order has had a special emphasis on going into places that have been devastated and helping those affected to rebuild,” explained Msgr. James Kidder, chaplain of the Order of Malta, whose members have been providing assistance for the rebuilding of Paradise.
The community was comprised of both working-class residents and retirees, Msgr. Kidder said. He said Social Security was, for many, their main source of income; and many residents lost half the value of their land with the fire. But more young families are moving in to give it a go.
And the priest has seen the people come a long way since their first Mass after the 2018 blaze.
“There’s a persistent spirit of renewal,” said Msgr. Kidder, who is also Greg’s eighth cousin.
He admired the “marvelous spirit of the people” as they worked to rebuild their parish.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to design and execute their dreams as a community,” he said.
Journey of Faith
Jim Collins, grand knights for the local Knights of Columbus, told the Register that the experience has been a “roller-coaster ride” on the journey of faith.
“This is something different for us, but we’ve been undeterred.”
The Knights of Columbus purchased three large tents to help the community gather outside. Collins said the parish has established a “Table of Plenty” to cook meals for the community and as needed for gatherings. They have held parish community events like Cinco de Mayo and are building a unified community between their Anglo and Hispanic parish members.
Collins has taken over responsibility for the parish website after the original webmaster relocated after the fire, and he has been involved in fundraising for the new memorial wall. The wall will remember the three parishioners and 85 victims who died in the Camp Fire blaze and also honor parishioners who have given sacrificially to rebuild their parish.
Collins pointed to two ways the parish is embracing the call of evangelization. He said, for the parish community, they obtained the Augustine Institute’s Formed series.
“That’s one of the best [catechetical] resources the entire parish can get,” he said.
The parish is also reaching out to people moving back into Paradise as each home is approved for occupancy. Groups go out to deliver a crape myrtle, a drought-resistant tree. They meet the occupants, pray with them, and either welcome them back or invite them to come over and visit St. Thomas More.
“This is just another part of the faith journey,” Collins said. “I look forward most to the community being better than ever.”