Kenrick-Glennon seminarian aids firefighters in Colorado
Kenrick-Glennon seminarian John Stearns returned to his firefighter roots this summer during the massive Waldo Canyon fire in his home Diocese of Colorado Springs.
Stearns, a third-year theology student at the archdiocesan seminary in St. Louis, assisted firefighters in what has been labeled the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Before entering the seminary, Stearns, 45, served 10 years in the Air Force as a firefighter-paramedic and seven years with the Tri-Lakes/Monument Fire Protection District north of Colorado Springs.
"I was taking food, water, Gatorade to the guys on the line and working as a gopher," Stearns explained. "A battalion chief needed some helmets and hand tools, so I'd get them. Because all the firefighters had been recalled and they didn't have enough beds in the stations (because everyone was there at once), I rounded up cots."
Stearns, who is to be ordained a transitional deacon in St. Louis in the spring, is spending his summer serving at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Castle Rock, Colo., 40 miles north of Colorado Springs on I-25. His pastor there, Father Brad Noonan, is a fire department chaplain who also spent a lot of time on the front lines of the fire, ministering to the firefighters. Both worked up to 15 hours a day helping the firefighters.
"Because of my background and the recognition the fire departments gave me through Father Noonan, I was working on the fire lines in the evacuated areas. I could get in where a lot of people couldn't," Stearns said. He also assisted National Guard units working the fire. "I provided a resource so they didn't have to take someone off the line to do these things." He also provided support and shared conversations with firefighters and others "about some of the things they had seen" during the fire.
Father Noonan told the Colorado Catholic Herald he made himself available to firefighters and the affected residents "just to try to be present to them ... Asking how they're doing and what we can do for them is the pastoral and practical thing. It's a very hard experience."
The devastating fire began June 23 in Waldo Canyon, near Colorado Springs. Stearns explained, "Fires are named after their place of origin." Firefighters came from all around Colorado, from Wyoming, California and other states. By the time the fire was 100 percent contained on the evening of July 10, it had burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 347 homes and killed two people. About 32,000 people were evacuated at one point, including parts of the Air Force Academy. The Mountain Shadows neighborhood, site of the 347 destroyed homes, was hardest hit.
Many other homes there are heavily smoke damaged but still standing, Stearns said. "The only reason many of those homes are standing is because the firefighters stood their ground and protected those structures." No firefighters were killed or injured, he added.
"It was a miracle more people weren't killed," Stearns said. "They literally had no warning. The fire was moving so fast -- 60 to 75 miles an hour. For a sense of how fast that is, stand on the side of an interstate and watch the cars approach."
Stearns talked about how the people of the area, the Catholic parishes, Catholic Charities and the Diocese of Colorado Springs worked together to help people during and after the fire. "Bishop (Michael) Sheridan asked for a second collection to be taken up at parishes, to be given to the fire victims for relief." Throughout the wildfire, Bishop Sheridan, a former priest of the St. Louis Archdiocese, gathered workers at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Colorado Springs for daily rosaries.
What now for the people of Colorado?
"We don't have all the answers," said Stearns. "We trust in God's answers. I don't believe in coincidence. God directs our lives. There's always a reason for something, and we don't always know what that reason is.
"There were firefighters on the line whose houses were burning. Their wives and kids had been evacuated, their homes gone. When I talk to people like that, I don't get a sense of hopelessness. There's a sense of loss -- but with hope. A lot of people have put up signs that say 'We'll be back.' They have lost everything, but what they lost were material possessions. They have their lives and they are thankful."
John Stearns, a seminarian for the Diocese of Colorado Springs attending Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, invites everyone to read his blog, theromancollar.com.
Stearns, a former firefighter who assisted firefighters during the recent Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado, recently added a portion of a video made by the Colorado Springs Fire Department that provides a close-up and truly frightening look at the firefighters' battle to save homes from the devastating wildfire.
Some of this material was supplied by the Colorado Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.
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