COLUMBIA – The St. Thomas More Center on the campus of the University of South Carolina was heavily damaged in two fires that started in the building’s attic May 10.
Columbia firefighters were called to the center, which is the hub of campus Catholic ministry, when the first blaze ignited in the attic around 6:30 p.m. Firefighters returned to the Greene Street building around 10:50 p.m. when more smoke was reported, according to Deputy Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins of the Columbia City Fire Department.
No one was injured in either fire, or no staff members or students were in the building when the fires broke out. Father Tim Lijewski, who serves as pastor at the St. Thomas More Center, was out of town at the time.
The fire left heavy water damage on the second floor and in the basement. Father Lijewski’s living quarters on the second floor are damaged, and the roof has holes where firefighters had to break in.
Short-term living arrangements have been made for Father Lijewski and his two dogs. Worship at St. Thomas More, which attracts both members of the USC community and area Cath-olics, has not been affected by the blaze. The St. Thomas More Parish includes about 287 households. The chapel area is intact and Mass schedules have not been disrupted, according to an update posted on the parish Web site.
Guarav Shroff, who serves as the pastoral associate and director of Christian formation, has posted constant updates about the fire and its after- math on a parish blog. Shroff attributes the cause of the fire to chemicals sprayed by workers who had been hired to remove bats from the building’s attic area. The deputy fire chief said the substance appears to have reacted with the attic’s insulation. The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but no foul play was involved.
Shroff arrived at the first fire at around 6:30 p.m. and stayed outside the center talking to students and monitoring the situation until after 2 a.m. Thursday morning. He said news about the fire spread almost as soon as the first blaze was brought under control, and both students and parishioners who lived nearby started coming by to offer prayers, support and even food for the displaced staff members.
“The support, both in person and through voice and e-mail, has just been incredible,” Shroff said. “I think everyone has been very touched by the situation, especially the fact that for all intents and purposes right now, Father Tim has lost his home.”
Shroff said it was a blessing that if a fire had to occur, it took place after most students had left campus for summer vacation. He said that ordinarily on a Wednesday evening there would have been students gathered in the common area of the center.
Shroff and others who have been updating the blog and the Web site thanked USC students, St. Thomas More parishioners and members of the community at large who have offered help in the days since the fire.
“It has been absolutely wonderful and amazing to see just how many students and parishioners came by, brought food and offered help,” Shroff said in the blog. “We really have a wonderful community, alleluia!”
Major restoration work is already underway at the center and the office is closed until a temporary location can be found.
Those who want to learn more about the St. Thomas More Center, the fire, and efforts to rebuild can check the parish Web site at www.stthomasmoreusc.org. The blog dedicated to St. Thomas More is updated several times daily at http://stmcola.blogspot.com, and includes pictures of the fire and the ongoing restoration efforts.