At 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, more than 100 people were wrapping up a first communion reception with punch, cake and socializing at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in downtown Kalispell.
“They were just enjoying the aftermath of the reception,” Megan Holt, bookkeeper for the church, said. “Then an hour and a half later it’s up in smoke.”
Holt is referring to a fire that tore through the church’s basement Sunday evening, fortunately after the reception had cleared out. The fire was reported by a parishioner, who had been praying alone when he noticed smoke coming from downstairs around 5 p.m. and reported it to the church’s social concerns office, which called 911.
Nobody else but the lone parishioner was in the church at the time. There were no reported injuries.
The Kalispell Fire Department was dispatched to the scene at 5:08 p.m. and discovered smoke billowing out from multiple sides of the church. Recognizing the severity of the fire and size of the building, crews requested additional equipment and manpower from neighboring fire departments.
Firefighters doused the flames within roughly a half hour, while continuing to put out hot spots and complete overhaul work for the next half hour or so, according to Kalispell Fire Chief Dave Dedman.
The Kalispell Fire Department is investigating the fire and said the cause was still unknown as of Monday morning. Fire officials do not believe foul play was involved.
“We’re thinking accidental,” Dedman said. “The area of origin is the kitchen, but we don’t have a definitive cause of ignition at this point.”
The fire department conducted a walk-through on Monday morning to assess the damage. The flames were contained to the basement, which was heavily impacted. Holt said the kitchen was “completely destroyed.”
Dedman said the upstairs main floor of the church suffered smoke damage throughout, including the pews and walls.
“Everything has been damaged by smoke,” the fire chief said.
While Dedman described the overall damage as “relatively severe” at the historic church, which was built over a century ago, he said he believes “it’s manageable.”
“Buildings of that era are remarkably strong,” Dedman said. “They’re built with dimensional lumber, heavy timber, and they can actually take quite a bit of (fire) before we see failures.”
“The structure itself is remarkably well-built,” he added. “I think that’s one of the reasons the fire was contained to the basement.”
Dedman said the church and restoration companies will decide when the church will be in use again, but he thinks it will take a while.
“There’s a significant amount of work to be done before it can be open to the public,” he said.
Assisting in the incident response were the Kalispell Police Department, Evergreen Fire Department, South Kalispell Fire Department, Smith Valley Fire Department, West Valley Fire Department, Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Flathead County Posse, Flathead Electric Cooperative and NorthWestern Energy.
Holt described the mood on Monday morning among those with close ties to the church as “very solemn, very quiet.”
“Still in shock,” she said. “There are so many things in the church that are irreplaceable.”