Investigators still don't know what started the fire that damaged St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ost, 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. Wednesday to prepare for rehearsals for the Mass that includes the sacrament of Confirmation, which was scheduled for Thursday night.
When he opened the front doors, however, he was greeted with a wall of black smoke.
"The smoke and heat just blasted me out," Eck said Thursday. "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."
In his 58 years as a priest, Eck said, he's never been through anything like this.
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.
The Mass including the sacrament of Confirmation was still planned for Thursday night, though it was scheduled for the parish hall next to the church.
Masses will be celebrated at the hall until the church is restored, Eck said.
More than a half-dozen restoration companies had called the parish office Thursday morning to offer their services, Eck said, but he won't know how much it will cost until insurance adjusters come by to study the damage.
The fire won't cause the church — which regularly draws about 375 people for services — to close, he said.
"Oh, no, no, no," Eck said. "We'll survive."