Late pontiff’s Bible, walking stick untouched in devastating St. Malo fire
By Nissa LaPoint
The retreat center will be closed for retreats for the foreseeable future. St. Malo staff is contacting retreat groups that were scheduled for the facility.
Contact: To reschedule events, contact Jorge Luna at (720) 937-2500.
Photo by James Baca/DCR
As firefighters and Boulder County officials walked through the rubble of St. Malo Retreat Center in Allenspark after containing a raging fire that nearly engulfed the north wing of the conference center Monday, Nov. 14, they became awestruck.
Laying among the charred pieces of the building on the third floor sat the Bible Pope John Paul II used during his visit to the Catholic retreat, conference and spiritual center, said Marci Linton, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office emergency services coordinator and lead fire investigator.
She quickly told everyone to take photographs.
“I don’t know how that’s possible,” Linton said. “I don’t know how we found the Bible on the third floor and it was untouched. Everything around it was burned. There were some miraculous things that happened up there.”
Other irreplaceable items from Blessed John Paul’s 1993 visit during World Youth Day that were stored in a cabinet and the room he stayed in, No. 316, along with other paintings, photographs, statues and icons, were also untouched by the flames that firefighters from 14 fire protection districts fought early in the morning Nov. 14.
“Everything is pristine,” said Jeff Rivard, operating manager for St. Malo, referring to all of the memorabilia.
The north wing of the building is another story. Rivard and other staff and construction crews began winterizing the conference center after the Archdiocese of Denver was granted access to the building Nov. 16, he said.
Members of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (Sodality of Christian Life), a part of the Sodalitium spiritual family, which includes the Christian Life Movement, an international ecclesiastical lay movement, operated the center at 10758 Highway 7 since 2003. Five members of the community and an aspirant lived at St. Malo. They lost all their belongings and are now living with friends or at Holy Name Parish in Englewood.
“It’s sad that we have this situation, but on the other hand this has to be in God’s plans,” said Jose Ambrozic, director of St. Malo and a member of the Sodalitium.
St. Malo will be closed for an indefinite period of time, administrators said. Future plans to salvage the fire-charred center are in limbo as staff members wait for officials to complete a final report and for St. Malo’s insurance company, the Nebraska-based Catholic Mutual Group, to assess the damage.
It’s too early to know how much of the center can be salvaged, administrators said.
“I hope we will have a plan soon to rebuild it and have a sense of when we (will) be operating again,” Ambrozic said.
Ambrozic and other consecrated members of the Sodalitium were leaving the small chapel in the main lodge after Mass when they saw flames coming from the roof and chimney early in the morning Nov. 14, he said.
Firefighters responded to a 911 call about the fire at about 8 a.m. that morning. Some 70 firefighters from 14 fire districts fought the blaze until midday Nov. 14 and stayed all night to watch for outbreaks and put out hot spots.
No injuries were reported, officials said. The retreat center was empty of guests Sunday night after a group of 150 college students completed their weekend retreat, Ambrozic said. Three employees were able to safely evacuate the building.
Officials estimate the fire caused $10 million of damage. The north half of the building containing the atrium, conference center, kitchen area and chapel received the most damage, Linton said. A firewall appeared to protect the 49 guest rooms on the south side of the 60,000-square-foot building, according to officials.
The free-standing historic St. Catherine’s Chapel, also known as the Chapel on the Rock, built in the 1930s was left unharmed.
Initial reports blame the fire on a gas buildup in the chimney of the retreat center, which served about 6,000 people every year, but officials did not release the cause of the fire by press deadline Nov. 21.
“It was an accidental fire,” Linton said. “The residents there didn’t do anything wrong. It just takes time to put together a fire investigation report.”
Investigators from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, Allenspark Fire Protection District, Boulder County Multi-Agency Fire Investigation Team and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms completed their hands-on investigation, she said. But it is expected to take two to three weeks before a final report and the cause of the fire are released.
The ATF joined the investigation due to the fact that damages exceeded $1 million and it always investigates fires at religious institutions, she said.
St. Malo has been a place of historic significance and the site of spiritual and social renewal since 1916 when Msgr. Joseph Bosetti vowed to build a chapel on the site and in the years after founded the camp for the boys of Denver’s Cathedral Choir. The property was originally owned by William McPhee, who built the first camp building, St. William’s Lodge. In 1934, Oscar Malo purchased the site and made extensive improvements, including adding the St. Catherine Chapel.
Dan Hallinan, 79, of Denver, has fond memories of going to the camp when he was 8 and 9 years old in 1946 and 1947.
It cost $15 to stay for a week, which he did for two consecutive years. The boys would build race cars, go fishing, hike the mountains and swim in the pond, he said.
“That was two of the best weeks as a kid that I ever spent,” Hallinan said.
The building was closed down while the current conference was constructed in 1987 for $5 million. Then archbishop of Denver, now Cardinal James Stafford dedicated the building in June 1988.
The retreat center is forever a part of the life of Denise Pfnister, who worked at the camp since she was 11 years old in 1975 until it closed in 1984. She founded the Camp St. Malo Alumni Association almost six years ago and incorporated it last year as a way to connect those who were a part of it.
When she first saw pictures of St. Malo on fire, she began crying and became sick, she said.
“I was so shocked,” Pfnister said. “It’s just such an unconscious part of who I am.”
She worked as a counselor and went on to work in youth ministry for the Denver Archdiocese, having been largely influenced by her time at St. Malo.
Among many other memories, she recalls raising her two children with her husband at the camp and planting trees with her grandchildren around the property, she said.
“Somehow our family continues to be tied to St. Malo,” Pfnister said. “St. Malo is so much more than that building. It is an experience of God’s presence on holy ground. It is truly God’s revealing of himself to people who go there.”
Belfor Property Restoration was hired by St. Malo and the Archdiocese of Denver Management Corporation to preserve the legacy by cleaning and restoring the memorabilia that was saved from the fire. Firefighter Rich Palestro of the Colorado State Forest Service was instrumental in finding the invaluable items of the late pope, including his walking stick, and collecting them and putting them in a safe place the day of the fire, Rivard said.
“All the things of importance were saved,” Linton said. “It was a miracle up there.”
Groups who had scheduled retreats may contact Jorge Luna at 303-747-0202. Deposits will be returned and staff is contacting other retreat centers to help retreat groups find other accommodations.
Last week's Denver Catholic Register coverage:
Firefighters battle blaze at St. Malo Retreat Center
Denver Catholic Register, Nov. 16, 2011
Secular News Coverage of St. Malo fire:
Story with video: Fire breaks out at St. Malo, causing as much at $1 million in damage at the Catholic retreat center [quotes Msgr. Fryar]
Denver Post, photo p. 1A, story p. 1B; and Boulder Daily Camera
Catholic retreat fire still smoldering
Associated Press, Denver Post online
Story and video: Fire contained at St. Malo lodge near Allenspark; up to $1M in damage [quotes Jeannette DeMelo]
Boulder Daily Camera, run in Loveland Reporter Herald, Estes Park Trail Gazette and Colorado Daily
Fire causes heavy damage to historic Catholic retreat [quotes Jeanette DeMelo]
Associated Press, run in Fort Collins Coloradoan and Colorado Springs Gazette
Colorado Catholic retreat center seriously damaged in fire [quotes Jose Ambrozic]
Catholic News Agency
Story: Firefighters Contain Fire At St. Malo Retreat
KMGH 7News Denver
Story and video: St. Malo fire contained; damage estimated at $1 million
Fox 31 Denver, CW2
Fire burns historic lodge in Larimer County
850 KOA radio