It’s that time of year — students are filling their backpacks with shiny new pencils and brightly colored notebooks. Teachers are putting up vibrant bulletin boards and creating welcoming spaces to inspire learning.
But back-to-school looks a little different this fall for the students, families, faculty and staff of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in St. Cloud after a fire damaged the building in the early hours of July 4.
Principal Kelly Vangsness had just returned from a vacation to Iceland the night before and was at her parents’ home in western Minnesota picking up her kids when she got the call from a school custodian.
“Kelly, we have a fire.” The words echoed in her head.
“It was the longest two-and-a-half-hour drive back to St. Cloud,” she said. “When I got here, there were still a few fire trucks and some of the teachers had gathered. That was the last time I really felt panic. From the moment I stepped out of my vehicle, it has been go-go-go mode. There is so much the teachers are feeling, so much loss. I want to be strong for them.”
Barb Knafla walks her dog past the school every morning around 5 a.m. However, since it was the Fourth of July, she went a little later than normal, around 5:30 a.m. That’s when she noticed flames
in the southeast entrance of the building.
“I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me,” Knafla said. “But then my dog started barking and I knew it was real.”
The fire reportedly began sometime around 5:10 a.m., which investigators confirmed using a security camera that captured smoke in the building. The fire was reported about 5:40 a.m. after Knafla flagged down a driver to call it in.
“I believe I was put there for the right reason. God had a plan and has a plan for all of this,” she said. “Hopefully, through his mercy and grace their beloved school can be restored.”
Investigators ruled the fire an accident, likely caused by a fault in the wiring. The vast majority of the impact was smoke and soot damage, according to Father Tom Knoblach, pastor of the school.
“The west wing will be restored in time for the opening of school Sept. 4 (Editor’s Note: After the print version of this article went to press, the opening was rescheduled for Sept. 9). The east wing, where the fire started, may take more time. We should be able to accommodate all our programming without using the east wing immediately, if necessary,” he said.
Clean-up and reconstruction is likely to cost in excess of $1 million, he said. An insurance settlement is pending.
The building will be certified as safe with no health risks before it is occupied. Vangsness will be compiling a list of needs for the school to be shared with those who wish to contribute.
“We are blessed not only by the generosity of so many, but also the great teamwork and support of all involved,” Father Knoblach added.
Vangsness feels she has seen the movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the entire journey — from astute neighbors to the outpouring of community support and the nearly-unscathed wooden crucifix that hung near the source of the fire.
“I get goosebumps when I talk about it,” Vangsness said. “The light above the crucifix and the camera above it were completely melted. The fire was suctioned down the hallway and the crucifix hung right where the most intense flames were. It’s very emotional — the cross is the premise of our community. It’s just such a solid symbol of who we are, and it is still standing. We’re still standing and we will continue to move forward.”
After the fire, the school was completely emptied. Outside, at least a dozen trailers were filled with items marked “salvageable” and “non-salvageable.”
“It’s just heartbreaking to see what had to go. Especially, the teacher’s personal libraries,” Vangsness said. “It’s different than the school library. The teachers worked for years to collect the books they use in their rooms. Many of them were purchased with their own money or were gifts from students. That really gets to me.”
But she also feels a lot of hope and support from the Catholic Community Schools family, of which St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a member. CCS superintendent Lynn Grewing said the summer was a difficult time for the school’s faculty and staff.
“This incident and aftermath … has certainly demonstrated the value and support of the CCS community,” Grewing said. “Even the day of the fire, several of our other principals were the first on the scene to support Kelly. They have all rallied around her with many offers of assistance and support.”
Erin Hatlestad, principal of St. Katharine Drexel School in St. Cloud, was among the first to reach out to Vangsness.
“What I really feel strongly about is that, because we are CCS, we are all in this together. I think this fire is almost everybody’s worst nightmare as an administrator. It was so nice the day of the fire that those of us who were available came to offer support,” Hatlestad said. “It could’ve happened to any one of us.”
Christina Van Heel has taught music at St. Elizabeth’s for about 13 years and has two children who attend the school.
“It was almost surreal. The week after the fire when we were allowed to go in, I didn’t think it would be that emotional, but I cried like a baby,” Van Heel recalled.
“In some ways, it was a little scary only because I kept thinking about all the things that were in my classroom and how I will have to problem solve [to] make things work this year without them. But we have a really strong community, the parents have been really good, the teachers have been really good, and we will do it together. We have no choice but to go up from here.”
After the fire, the summer kids’ program was moved to St. Anthony in St. Cloud. Families and teachers from other CCS schools collected donations to accommodate the kids in their new, temporary location.
“The needs we had were met within the first 12 hours,” Vangsness said. “Everyone has just been so incredibly generous.”
Vangsness was onsite at St. Elizabeth’s nearly every day since the fire. As she walked through the hallways, she was pleasantly greeted by the ServiceMaster crews, many of whom she now knows by name. As many as 35 workers have been meticulously cleaning for up to 13 hours each day.
Thousands of feet of cables and wires were restrung, all the ceilings completely removed and replaced, carpet torn up, every nook and cranny cleaned and cleaned again, brick by brick. Even the cupboards, sound system, whiteboards and corkboards all had to go. Despite the loss, Vangsness remains positive.
“We will definitely lose some of the character of the building and that is heartbreaking. But it’s also an opportunity to give the school some much needed updates,” she said.
The greatest lesson she said she has learned, and what she wants people to know, is that the Catholic Church is strong.
“Here in our school, this is where we grow the Catholic Church,” she said. “There are so many bad things in the news and, yes, this fire was bad news. But everything else about this process — from the workers to friends and families to my colleagues and parishioners and the whole faith community — has shown what the Church is really all about.
“You think of ‘church’ as going to Sunday Mass, and that is vital. But the support this community has shown is also ‘church.’ This is the domestic church living out its mission.”
WAYS TO HELP:
Plans for meeting the needs of the school are developing. Currently, cash donations are being accepted at Catholic Community Schools, 207 7th Ave N., St. Cloud, MN 56303.
An Amazon store has been set up with the items that the teachers have requested. These range from toys to fans to classroom rugs, at all price points. Go to this link: http://a.co/dMXYo74 and purchase an item. It will be delivered directly to the school and will be removed from the list to avoid duplication.
Stay tuned on social media for more information about dates for Barnes & Noble book fairs to help replenish the teachers’ libraries.