The fire at St. Mary's in Albany was 30 years ago today
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The fire at St. Mary's in Albany was 30 years ago today

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It was sometime around 8 p.m. on Oct. 29, 1989 that Terry Gleason heard a knock on the door of the church where he was working. A parishioner had wanted to practice the piano and so Gleason had agreed to stay late. It was the only reason he was able to answer the door that night.

“The guy said the skating rink was on fire,” Gleason recalled. He grabbed his coat and headed out from his post at Sixth Street and Jefferson Avenue to walk toward the smoke. He’d only gone a block when he realized what it was and darted back for his camera.

By the time he got back to Eighth Avenue and Ellsworth Street, a crowd had assembled.

“I have no idea how many people were there,” he said. “A lot of people were in shock.”

There were some tears in the crowd but no cellphones yet. So when Gleason raised his camera and guessed at the aperture and shutter speed, he’d create one of the only enduring photographic pieces of evidence from that night — flames engulfing the steeple at St. Mary’s Catholic Church moments before the bell would crash. The hall’s windows glowing orange against the night. A stream of water shooting up and over the flames in the sanctuary in an attempt to save its gymnasium and keep the flames at bay.

It’s one of the last images of the 91-year-old church before it fell, leaving ash and rubble on Ellsworth Street for months and sending its congregation across the city to find places to worship.

Today — Oct. 29, 2019 — marks 30 years since the fire.

On the scene

The fire at St. Mary’s church would later be determined an act of arson but when the phone rang at Sharon Konopa’s house that night all she knew was that her church was on fire.

“Back then there were no cellphones or social media,” she said. “Everything was landlines.” A mother whose daughter shared the same first-grade classroom as Konopa’s daughter was the one to deliver the news.

“She just said the church is on fire,” remembered Konopa, who now serves as mayor of Albany. “We rushed down there.”

The family parked across the street and joined the crowd watching the flames attack the church where the Konopas had been married 12 years before and where their daughter had been baptized.

“I stood there and saw the steeple fall over. It was devastating,” Konopa said. “They said it only burned for an hour before there was just nothing left.”

According to reporting done at the time, alarms were tripped at the church at 7:47 p.m. By 7:53, emergency crews had arrived. A battalion chief at the time, Cecil Wink was quoted as saying, “I heard the alarm, walked into my office and the whole sky was lit up. When we pulled up, every window was filled with flames, there was no stopping it.”

It’s a night Marilyn Smith said she will never forget. A reporter for the Democrat-Herald at the time, she got a call from the paper’s part-time sports reporter — the church was on fire.

“My husband, Stanford Smith, was the chief photographer at the time,” she said. “We got downtown as fast as we could, just shortly before the steeple and the bell inside it fell.”

Smith would cover the aftermath for months but recalled one interview on the scene.

“I remember one parishioner sobbing as she told me, ‘Our tabernacle is gone.’”

The act

There had been three masses at St. Mary’s on the morning of Oct. 29 and the building remained open for the community throughout the day. According to reports from the time, the doors were locked at 7 p.m. Less than an hour later, the building was on fire.

By the time Bruce Scott Erbs, 43, had arrived in Albany, he already had two sex abuse convictions and several stints in jail. News reports at the time described him as a transient.

He was arrested within days of the fire. In a 2003 interview with the Democrat-Herald, Erbs said he started the fire by lighting a paper bag under the staircase inside the historic structure.

"I was mad at myself," Erbs said of that night during the 2003 interview, "but I was blaming Him. I took it out on God. You can tell the people I'm sorry for what I did."

Erbs was convicted in Linn County in April 1990 and sentenced to 20 years in prison with a minimum of 10 years served before he was eligible for parole.

He was released in 2003 and until his death at nearly 70 years old, Erbs worked to turn his life around. Unable to find him housing, Linn County authorities housed him in a tent outside the jail. From the tent to housing he later found in Albany, Erbs tried to do good. He volunteered at a drop-in location in Albany for homeless individuals and never reoffended.

Erbs died of pneumonia on July 31, 2015. His body was donated to the College of Osteopathic Medicine in Lebanon and was later cremated.

The rise

Konopa remembers the church’s bazaar had been planned for the first week in November. No longer with a home, the congregation began searching.

“I think the first holy day, Nov. 1 we were at the Presbyterian church and then Memorial Middle School and then the building where DHS is now.”

After the fire, the church received $1.9 million in insurance funds and spent about $180,000 in storage and investigating the fire and cleanup.

“I remember the rubble there for a long time because they had to investigate,” Konopa said. “One day one of the nuns and I, during the playground time for the kids, we were sifting through and I found pieces of the stained glass. I still have them somewhere.”

Kathy Reilly worked as a pastoral assistant at the time of the fire. She said she doesn’t remember the exact order of events of Oct. 29, 1989, just the emotion.

“It was a great loss for the parish but also the community because the church had been a landmark,” she said.

Through insurance funds, fundraising and donations, the new St. Mary’s was completed in 1992.

“You saw this act which was so evil,” Reilly said. “But all these good people came and responded with hospitality. You saw the bad thing that happened but you also saw so much good.”

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