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'God will give you strength': Phila. archbishop reacts to fire that destroyed Catholic school on Tuesday

One firefighter was injured in the blaze at the significantly Black Catholic school, and the cause is still under investigation.

Video still from the fire at Our Mother of Consolation School in Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon. (NBC10 Philadelphia)

Archbishop Nelson Pérez of Philadelphia has released a statement on the three-alarm fire that destroyed a Catholic school in the Chesnut Hill neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon.

Our Mother of Consolation School (OMCS), which recently celebrated its 160th anniversary, will conduct classes virtually as officials seek a new location for students to return to in-person instruction. No students or staff were injured, while one firefighter was hospitalized with minor injuries.

“This moment is challenging in many ways and I know it comes with a great deal of pain and anxiety for all of you,” Pérez wrote in a letter released on Thursday.

“The OMC community is a resilient and tight knit one. I know that you will continue working with one another toward recovery and that God will give you strength.”

According to OSV News, the fire was first noticed by a parent who saw smoke coming from the roof while picking up their child. Local first responders had the blaze under control within a few hours, but not before the roof of the school collapsed. A letter from school administrators later that day noted that the school was empty at the time.

“Thanks to the urgency and professionalism of PFD, further damage to our parish campus was averted,” they wrote.

Representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrived Thursday morning to join the ongoing investigation into the cause of the fire.

"The NRT is here to provide specialized resources to help determine the origin and cause of this fire,” said Walter Shaw, the ATF National Response Team supervisor.

“The team works in partnership with local and state fire and law enforcement agencies to assist this community in any way we can.”

In his letter, Pérez noted the positive community response in the days since the incident, including from the Sisters of St. Joseph, the order which serves at the school.

“In just the past few days there has been an outpouring of support in so many ways from Archdiocesan offices, neighboring parishes and Catholic schools, local colleges, and civic officials,” he wrote.

The sisters have been affiliated with OMCS since its founding in 1862 as a ministry of Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church, the parish next door. The school also has ties to St. John Neumann, the 19th-century bishop who founded in Philadelphia the first diocesan school system in the United States.

The OMCS building that burned this week was built in 1919 and served a diverse preK-8 student population, including a significant number of African Americans, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The school was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2015 and was recognized by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as a School of Distinction in 2021 for “exceeding growth expectations and benchmarks in academic achievement via standardized testing.”

Following the fire, nearby Chesnut Hill College—one of the nation’s Blackest Catholic colleges, operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph—offered to assist in providing learning space for OMCS students, alongside a number of local churches and schools.

“Our greatest blessing today is that there was no loss of life,” school officials said in their announcement.

“Please be assured of our prayers for you and your families during this difficult time for us all. I also ask that you keep our teachers, faculty, and staff in your prayers.”

OMCS was scheduled to celebrate its annual Hall of Fame induction with a gala and special action on Friday, April 14 at the Flourtown Country Club. The school is currently accepting donations online to help with fire recovery efforts.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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