Devastating fires bring out the best in parish community

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH — Joseph Gosiewski removed a carefully folded tissue from his pocket. Inside it, he said, were two symbols of his Catholic faith. They are among the few possessions remaining after a fire destroyed the home he shared with his wife Nancy.
“There’s the rosary I got for my first holy Communion, and the St. Joseph and St. Patrick medals that were put on my baby’s crib,” Gosiewski said, pointing to a singed but still recognizable rosary and two scorched medals held together by a safety pin.
The Gosiewskis were among the many victims of wildfires that tore through parts of the Grand Strand on April 22-23.  
At Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in North Myrtle Beach, they were one of seven families whose homes were destroyed.
They spent the afternoon of May 3 with Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, who visited the parish to celebrate Mass, meet with parishioners and tour the burned areas of nearby Barefoot Resort, where most of the victims lived.
The fires burned an estimated 20,000 acres in Horry County, and about 150 homes were either destroyed or severely damaged. Luckily, and some say miraculously, no one was seriously injured or killed in the blazes.
Financial help for the families has begun to come in, said Father Robert Higgins, administrator at Our Lady Star of the Sea. He said the parish community raised $21,000 through special collections, Catholic Charities supplied $10,000 and St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach collected $3,000.
Donations of food, clothing and furniture have also poured in to the church. Father Higgins said furniture and other items originally slated for their annual garage sale will  instead  be given to the fire victims.
Bishop Guglielmone addressed the crowd at the beginning of Mass.
“I simply wanted to come and be with you where there was a loss, such fear and such trauma with these terrible fires,” he said. “I want simply to pray with you and to offer my own personal support and the support of the Diocese of Charleston, and to show my concern and care for those who suffered during these past few weeks. It is a very fearful thing to see fire approaching and not know what is going to happen. We are thankful for no loss of life.”
He spoke directly to the family members, most of whom were sitting in the front rows.
During his homily, Bishop Guglielmone reflected on daily readings which showed Jesus Christ’s role as a shepherd for his followers, and said it was important to take that image to heart during difficult times.
“Jesus presents himself as a model for his disciples … we all need to shepherd each other, to seek out those who are lost and suffering,” he said. “We are all in this together.”
After Mass, Bishop Guglielmone met with some of the families and attended a private luncheon. Later, the bishop and Father Higgins rode with the Gosiewskis to view their damaged home and other destruction in the area.
The Gosiewskis only recently moved into their house after retiring from Nationwide Insurance in Delaware. Mrs. Gosiewski moved to North Myrtle Beach in September 2008, and her husband followed in December.
They decided to retire to a coastal community after she survived two bouts with cancer.
“When she got a clean bill in 2006, we decided to make a fresh start, because life’s too short,” Mr. Gosiewski said. “We’re going to rebuild because this is our home. We beat cancer and we’ll get through this.”
They were awakened the night of April 23 by a warning signal. They looked out and saw a wall of flame approaching from the thick woods behind their three-bedroom, one story home.
“To me, it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever experienced … to see the fire so close,” Mrs. Gosiewski said. “We’re just glad to be alive. I don’t even remember how we got dressed.”
The couple jumped into Mr. Gosiewski’s car and fled the area. Mrs. Gosiewski’s car, a 2001 Mustang convertible, was left in the garage and destroyed.
They lost everything, from important papers and photographs to furniture, clothing and keepsakes.
“Losing the pictures is what hurts, but there’s nothing you can do,” she said. “My son and daughter-in-law said they’re going to start putting together scrapbooks for us of the four grandchildren.”
On Sunday, Mr. Gosiewski wore a golf shirt that he said he bought especially for the bishop’s visit. Mrs. Gosiewski wore a borrowed blouse and pants, and newly purchased shoes.
Bishop Guglielmone inspected the ruins of their home and talked with them as they pointed out the burned car, heaps of ruined clothing and charred furniture. He also met with a captain from the Horry County Fire Department who gave him details about the fire.
Mrs. Gosiewski said there has been comfort in finding keepsakes spared by the flames. She found a locket her father gave her when she was five, which survived even though its case is singed, and a collectible figurine with a very suitable slogan: “I need a hug.”
The Gosiewskis both said the material losses can be replaced. They are thankful that they, and all of their friends in the area, survived.
Another family home that was destroyed belonged to Mr. Gosiewski’s brother, who lives in New York. It was on the other side of the forest from theirs.
They are thankful for the help they have received from their church and others in the community.
“Every morning when I open my eyes, I say thank you to God that I’m alive and my friends are alive,” Mr. Gosiewski said. “It’s also the last thing I say at night.”
The May 7 article on the fires in North Myrtle Beach incorrectly stated that St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach collected $3,000. The parish took up a special collection April 26 and donated $1,000 each to the six families from Our Lady, Star of the Sea Church who lost their homes in the fires.