Colorado wildfires force Mass cancellations, evacuations near parishes

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A man walks across a field as smoke from the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Colorado Springs fills the sky June 26. A massive wildfire that started in the canyon, a popular hiking spot, forced the evacuation of neighborhoods in several Catholic parishes i n the Diocese of Colorado Springs, as well as the cancellation of Sunday Masses at two parishes. (CNS photo/Rick Wilking, Reuters)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CNS) — A massive wildfire that started around the popular hiking spot Waldo Canyon west of Colorado Springs forced the evacuation of neighborhoods around several parishes and the cancellation of Sunday Masses at two parishes in the Colorado Springs Diocese.

Holy Rosary Chapel in Cascade and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Manitou Springs canceled Sunday Mass June 24 after authorities determined they could be in the path of the wildfire and forced evacuations of those surrounding communities.

The novitiate for the Order of the Holy Cross in Cascade was also evacuated and priests and novices were relocated to Sacred Heart Church in the Old Colorado City neighborhood in west Colorado Springs. Sacred Heart Parish is run by Holy Cross priests.

As of June 28, the fire had consumed more than 18,000 acres and leaped over a ridge into the Mountain Shadow and Cedar Heights neighborhoods of Colorado Springs. No casualties have been reported and no churches have been damaged, but 34,500 residents have been forced to evacuate, including 2,200 people living in housing on the south section of the U.S. Air Force Academy campus.

More than 300 homes are estimated to have burned down as of early June 28. Neighborhoods around St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Colorado Springs, including Mount St. Francis Nursing Home, were among those evacuated June 26.

Father Brad Noonan, a longtime Colorado Springs fire chaplain before being assigned as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Castle Rock, has visited the site several times and has been available for the needs of firefighters and affected residents. He said the pastoral approach to help them is to “just try to be present to them.”

“Asking how they’re doing and what we can do for them is the pastoral and practical thing,” he said. “It’s a very hard experience.”

In addition to the three parishes affected, among those displaced have been a handful of employees of the Catholic Pastoral Center, located in downtown Colorado Springs.

“Together with the Catholic faithful of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, I offer prayers for everyone who has been affected and, in some cases displaced, by the Waldo Canyon wildfire,” Colorado Springs Bishop Michael J. Sheridan said in a June 26 statement.

“We also pray for the firefighters and volunteers who are working hard to contain the wildfire and serve the needs of those affected. We are grateful for your courage, generosity and sacrifice, and we are heartened to see communities rallying together during this trying time,” he said.

On June 27, Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs began to serve breakfast to evacuees temporarily housed at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner for evacuees staying at Summit Elementary School in Divide.

According to Mark Rohlena, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado president and CEO, the estimated 450 meals a day were on top of the more than 600 meals served daily at the downtown Marian House Soup Kitchen.

“We are pleased to be able to help in this way to make life a little easier for those who have been displaced by this disaster in our community,” Rohlena told The Colorado Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper. “We ask that everyone continues to pray for those battling this fire, as well as those who are displaced or in harm’s way.”

With no weather relief in sight, the fire at Waldo Canyon, located off of Highway 24 just west of Manitou Springs, could become one of the largest in state history. As of June 28, authorities said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

Catholic Charities of the Denver Archdiocese announced June 27 that it also was working with Catholic Charities in Colorado Springs and other agencies, such as the American Red Cross and United Way teams, to help fire victims.

Denver’s Catholic Charities agency and Bishop James D. Conley, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator, issued a joint call for prayer and charitable assistance for the victims of multiple fires raging throughout the state of Colorado.

The Catholic agency was providing emergency aid to those affected by a fire around Fort Collins in northern Colorado that began June 9. As of June 28, fire officials said the blaze was 75 percent contained. It has burned more than 87,000 acres. Another fire broke out west of Boulder June 26 and was being monitored by Catholic officials in case people there needed emergency relief. That fire had already burned 300 acres.

“Our ongoing response to these unfortunate natural disasters remains rooted in the call of Christ to “to shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and feed the poor,” Catholic Charities of Denver said in a statement. “Our team will continue to do everything possible to assist Coloradans in this time of need.”

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— By Bill Howard, editor of The Colorado Catholic Herald in Colorado Springs.

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