Investigators still don't know what started the fire that damaged St. Joseph Catholic Church Wednesday in Ost, the tiny town next to Cheney Lake in southeastern Reno County.
The Rev. Ivan Eck, pastor of the parish, said he walked over to the church at about 5:15 p.m. to prepare for Confirmation practice when he opened the front doors and was greeted with a wall of black smoke.
"The smoke and heat just blasted me out," Eck said. "It was just pitch-black in there and hot."
Eck said he heard crackling coming from a side altar, so he directed firefighters there when they arrived.
The wooden altar and a 6-foot statue of St. Joseph next to it were destroyed. But the fire didn't spread beyond some of the carpet around the altar.
Eck said he believes that saved the church, which was built in 1913.
"He sacrificed his life to save the church," Eck said of St. Joseph. "The fire didn't spread."
Investigators are "puzzled" by how the fire might have started, Eck said. There were no votive candles on or next to the altar, and no other readily apparent ignition sources.
A damage estimate hasn't been established, but Eck said smoke damage in the ornately decorated church is substantial.
Bishop Michael Jackels offered to celebrate tonight's Confirmation Mass on the hood of a jeep, in the spirit of Emil Kapaun, the native priest of the Wichita diocese whose service as an army chaplain in the Korean War has transformed him into a candidate for canonization by the Catholic Church.
But the Confirmation Mass and ceremony will be conducted at the parish hall next door to the church, Eck said — along with all parish Masses until the church is restored.
For more on this story, see Friday's Eagle.