Fairfax History In Ashes
Memories, Hopes Rise In Fire's Aftermath
Messenger Correspondent

(Henry Raymond Photo)

FAIRFAX — On a damp and blustery Christmas Eve, the old St. Luke's Catholic Church in its current incarnation - Steeple Market, went up in flames.

Local residents watched in horror and despair as the steeple burned. There was relief that no lives had been lost, but it was sad to see the former church building, part of the community since the 1870s, turn to ashes.

For nearly three decades, the wooden building had been a store - purchased first by Frank and Betsy Berardinelli in 1981 from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, when it had been deemed unsafe and the repairs too costly.

Betsy Berardinelli had been a member of St. Luke's Parish since being baptized there. She said older parishioners were not happy with the idea of a store, some complained that the cross on the steeple should be returned to the church.

The cross is seen in a photograph of the Steeple Market taken in the past couple of years. While Betsy isn't sure of, its locations, it's said to be stowed away in the garage of one of the former parishioners.

The Berardinellis spent a lot of money to bring the building up to code, also fixing drainage, roof and other structural problems. Being a landlord took some getting used to, however.

"We had tenants that stayed with us for several years at a time, but it was the short-term ones in between that were the problem," said Berardinelli.

One break-in at the store ended with police following a trail of potato chips and snacks up the back stairs to the apartments.

The store became a place where kids went after school and before sports practice or a game, a place for first jobs.

The Berardinellis ran it for about 14 years and owned the property for nearly 20. They sold the business to Terry and Gail O'Brien in 1995 and the Menard's and Thibeault's bought the business and the property at the end of 1999.

The old St. Luke's wasn't the most ornate of Catholic churches, but it had many parishioners from surrounding communities.

"I was married in that church and all four of my kids were baptized there," said Colleen Paquette, of Georgia. The daughter of Fairfax native Glendon Palmer, she attended St. Luke's because Georgia didn't have a church then.

"There was a large grate in the center aisle for the heat and I remember when I got married, one of the girls got her heel caught in the grate," she said "When we came down we had to walk on our toes so the heels didn't get caught.

Colleen's is not the only wedding story involving that grate.

Henry Raymond, Fairfax resident and historian, said that at least one bride tangled with it. "Some kind soul, I am told, retrieved the shoe and brought it to her before the ceremony proceeded," he explained

Dawn Groseclose Pelkey moved to Fairfax while in first grade and attended St. Luke's.

"Phil and I were married there in June of 1979, roughly where the meat counter was located... A fact that at first appalled me, but as the years have gone by I find rather amusing," she said.

Mary Jo Gillilan, who performs in many churches, began singing at St. Luke's Parish in Fairfax. Pelkey remembers that Mary Jo and her family always felt any voice raised in song was a blessed voice. "I'm here to tell you that was a very generous interpretation of my vocal abilities," added Pelkey.

Church bazaars and lawn parties were held in the 1950s and 1960s.

Paquette remembers street dances and selling hamburgers.

Raymond said former pastor, Father Joe Sawyer loved his lawn parties. All denominations were welcome.

The church itself forged memories even for those who were very young.

(Photo Courtesy Of Donna Meunier)

"I remember most the red velvet hanging from the ceiling by four chains on each corner of the cloth over the altar," said Kathleen Raymond, Henry Raymond's niece. "I was 5 years old when my older sister died, although I lived in Connecticut, we brought her back to be buried in Fairfax, the town my mother was from.

"Every time I went to St. Luke's Church, I would see that piece of red velvet hanging over the altar and think that my sister's spirit/soul was hiding up there looking down at me and it made me feel like she was still with me."

She added, "I have not been able to get that same feeling of comfort and peace back without that red velvet. ... It just never felt right to me and have not been back since."

Raymond remembered that the church was not insulated and difficult to heat. There was a renovation project in 1955. "We bit the bullet and did a major overhaul with some professional advice," he said.

The Catholic Diocese newspaper announced the building improvements and noted that "painting bees" had been held to keep costs within budget.

"Just about every parishioner that attended the church could walk in to church and find some piece or item that they themselves, or some member of their family, had taken particular pride in helping create or renovate," said Raymond.

But all the work was for naught. Father Morgan was forced to announce one Sunday that the church would be closed.

"Well!!! That didn't go well at all, as people sitting in metal folding chairs in what many still call The Parish Center envisioned the bingo hall as their new church," said Raymond.

A group of male parishioners came up with solutions such as putting cables across the structure to keep the walls from spreading out.

The diocese, however, had made up its mind. The Parish Center was to be the new church. A number of parishioners left over that news, although some have returned.

The bitterness has long since passed and in its place are memories that could fill a book.

(Henry Raymond Photo)

"I really hope the steeple can be rebuilt somehow. I loved the way it stuck up above the rest of the town, and gave the village quaint, charming appeal," said Suzy Kneeland, former Fairfax resident. "The fire left a gaping hole visually and emotionally. It does feel like someone died."

Pierre Menard, owner of Steeple Market has plans to rebuild, insurance pending, steeple included.

"I believe that none of us who attended the old St. Luke's, can drive by there right now and not have a tear, or lump in our throat as we look at what is now and think of what was," said Raymond.

Betsy Berardinelli remembered a time when controversy raged, but also the years afterward. Her sentiments may herald yet another rebirth for the former church and store site now filled with charred ruins.

"Some people never would come into the store, but most welcomed us," said Berardinelli of those early years in business "We had great customers an gained many friends from our years in Fairfax. We still hear from many of them."

Henry A. Raymond
February 9, 2009


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