Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fire! Get Out of the House

I usually don't sleep all that well the night before I leave for a flight.  Packing, last minute details, a flurry of emails to rectory staff members about any number of things (usually things that they know already and will cause them to shake their heads when they read them), and my fear of oversleeping, all cause me to have a restless night before the early morning pick-up for the airport.  But not last night.  Last night, as I was finishing my last minute details, I knew that I was so tired from all of the Christmas events, that I would sleep quickly and deeply.

When my alarm went off at 4am, it did so with greater gusto than usual.  (I'm a light sleeper, so a gentle alarm always does the trick and is shut off almost before it goes off.)  This morning it attacked my nervous system.  "I can't believe it is already 4am," my mind protested.  Then, the fog wore off, but the alarm didn't shut off.  It wasn't 4am, it was 2am.  It was not the alarm that announces a new day. It was the alarm of danger.  The fire alarms were blaring.

As I moved from my room to the hallway, I doubted.  "Is that really smoke that I smell?"  Something in me--maybe in everybody--wants to believe that it is an overreaction.  Calm down.  It's probably a mechanical malfunction of the alarm.  I ran down the flight of stairs to see if it was really smoke.  Thicker and thicker the smoke became.  This was not an alarm malfunction.  There was a fire.

As I ran back up the stairs, (the rectory is a massive building) I remembered one of the seminarians staying here last night told me "I can sleep through anything."  I also thought of the priest with whom I live and how he too is a sound sleeper.  "Get out of the house!  Get out of the house!  There's something burning" I yelled.

Picking up the phone to call 911 always feels like you are making the decision to authorize the release of nuclear weapons.  Once you make that call, they're coming.  There's no turning back.  There's this lingering doubt that maybe you should do a few more things before calling.  Truth to be told, I opened the cellar door to see if that stuff filling the air and making it hard to breathe was really smoke.  "Yes, that's smoke." 

With the sounds of fire alarms in the background, the police dispatcher asked his calm question, "What is your emergency?"  To which I replied, "This is Father Barnes.  The rectory fire alarms are sounding and the house is filling with smoke."  He asked me about other people in the house.  Even though that is what he is trained to ask, for some reason, that question consoled me.  I''m in a house filled with smoke and the noise of the alarms makes it difficult to think clearly.  But, there's somebody on the other end of the line who is thinking clearly.  "Yes, everybody is out," I said.  "I'm contacting the fire department, Father.  We are on our way."

As Fr. Chateau, Brian (the seminarian), Finbar (the rectory dog), and I stood outside freezing, the police and fire department arrived.  Thankfully, it was determined that the smoke that was filling the rectory was not the result of a raging fire, but of a furnace issue.  The fire department opened windows, set up fans, and cleared the rectory of smoke.  It's 3:30am now and the furnace repair man is here.  So, why bother telling all of this?

I might as well do something.  I have to be awake in 30 minutes and there's no point in going back to sleep now.  And, it's a pretty good story.  But there are some other reasons.

After the fire department arrived and while Fr. Chateau, Brian, and the hound were standing out front, I was in the alley way between the church and the rectory.  And, despite the fact that all danger was now ruled out, I thought about what could have been.  And I thought how as I was yelling for people to get out of the house, Fr. Chateau was knocking on Brian's door to alert him.  I thought about how blessed I am.  And, I thought about how I love all of these people.  In fact, as I stood outside, it wasn't just the folks that were in the house that came to mind.  I felt like everybody in the parish was in that house.  I don't know if that makes any sense or not.  But, I realized--yet again--how much I love the people here.

I know it turned out that it was not a life and death situation, but, in those few moments, it had all of the appearances of life and death.  Seeing Brian, Fr. Chateau, and the hound all outside safely, put into my heart a great love for them and a great love for everyone else in the parish. 

When I picked up the phone to call 911, I didn't feel like I was calling a stranger.  I am grateful and proud to say that I am a friend to the Beverly Police Department and to the Beverly Fire Department.  Calling them is like calling a friend and asking for help.  As a parish priest, I have a relationship not only with the parishioners, but also with the civil authorities.  As I was standing outside with flashing blue and red lights all around me, I thought about how I love these guys too.  Most of them are not my parishioners.  But, I'm still their priest.  And I'm glad for that.

Time to get ready to go to the airport.  If I had any doubt as to whether I could use a bit of a vacation, I'm fairly convinced now.  I leave, however, more grateful for the great people that God has put into my life.  I love being a priest.


  1. Father Barnes,

    I am so grateful to hear that our precious Father has His arms around you at all times! I work with these fine men and women and I know that if anything happened they would be there in a flash. I am glad that nothing happened to those who were with you and happy that you are all safe.

    Thanks for letting us know the positive comments about our fine civil servants. Most of all glad that all is well. Please have a relaxing, peaceful vacation.

    Shelley Zarella
    Administrative Asst.
    Beverly Police Department

  2. mary mccarthy mmccarthy59@gmail.comJanuary 7, 2012 at 7:40 PM

    Hi Father Barnes - Congrats on your new blog. I'm not a parishioner but I'm blessed to work for your buddy at St. Mary's in Waltham. I always find inspiration in your weekly bulletin message online. So I plan to keep up with reading your blog, too. Thanks for sharing your insight. It helps. - Mary