WESTPHALIA — For 124 years, people who approached Westphalia from the northwest, past fields of corn, sorghum and cotton, could see the Church of the Visitation bell towers before anything else.
On Monday, only flames and smoke were in view.
Westphalia Volunteer Fire Department member and Falls County Precinct 3 Constable Jerry Loden was on his way to check on some cows when he got a call at 7:55 a.m. from a family member who had been spotted smoke coming from the church bell tower. Loden said he then put out a call to the volunteers.
“With smoke coming out of the top of the bell tower it was apparent the church was fully engulfed,” he said.
It was a windy morning, which hampered firefighting efforts. Within 45 minutes, the church building was gone.
It was evident early on the church couldn’t be saved so focus turned to keeping the rectory safe, Loden said. “In the country the biggest obstacle in a fire is water supply. That’s why you see so many tanker trucks here. We do the best we can with the resources we have.”
Though he didn’t have a complete list, Loden said more than 12 agencies responded to the fire. In addition to the fire engines from surrounding communities, local farmers showed up hauling water tanks on trailers. A cement mixer from BC Materials arrived filled with water instead of cement. The water was used to flood hot spots. The owner of company is a member of the church.
Temple Fire & Rescue sent one ladder truck, one engine and the assistant chief to the Westphalia church fire. An investigator from the fire marshal’s office was on the way to the scene, spokesman Thomas Pechal said.
Loden lives in Westphalia and married his high school sweetheart at the church.
On Monday, Loden was present at the church in his professional capacity, but said he’ll have an opportunity to reflect on his history with the church later on.
“We go here every week, its home,” he said. “My wife was born here and I grew up in Rosebud. It’s a tough day for us.”
Church deacons Bill Smetana and Charlie Wright heard about the fire about 8 a.m. and were on site shortly after.
Smetana has lived in Westphalia all of his life and Wright lived here for more than 40 years.
Those standing on the periphery of the fire were in shock. Many cried and hugged each other for support.
“The Church of the Visitation was the community and the community was the church,” Smetana said. “They operated as one.”
A lot of people are hurting Wright said. There are a lot of memories.
The church congregation is made up of 185 families.
“There are people who were baptized here, confirmed here, married here and have loved ones buried in the cemetery,” he said.
The church would have celebrated its 125 anniversary in May 2020.
“We have to remember the church is the people and the people are here,” Wright said. “Westphalia is a strong community.”
Julian Tyboroski, the third deacon, showed up shortly after Wright and Smetana.
The church building may be gone, but the church is still alive through its parishioners, the Rev. Edwin Kagoo, Church of the Visitation priest, said during a prayer service held in the nearby school gymnasium.
“I want to personally thank all the firefighters who came to help,” Kagoo said. “We are thankful for all that was saved. Our hearts may be broken but our spirit is not.”
The Rev. Darrell Kostiha grew up in Westphalia and is now priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cyclone.
“I had the great pleasure to be here Saturday to celebrate a wedding,” Kostiha said.
Kostiha said he was having a difficult time wrapping his head around the fact the church no longer stands, however he has no doubt the church will be rebuilt because of its members.
“I know it will be beautiful because of you,” he said to a group of people standing nearby.
Jason Hoff used a chain connected to his pickup truck to pull the door off the back of the church. He and some friends went inside the church to save what they could. Hoff ended up with a bloody lip when he got hit with a hose.
“We got what we could … altar covers and other things,” Hoff said.
Hoff heard about the fire from a cousin who works for Temple Fire & Rescue.
Doris Wright was born and raised, confirmed and married at the church.
“All of our families are buried here,” she said.
Bishop Joe S. Vasquez and others from the Diocese of Austin arrived in Westphalia by late morning.
“It’s extremely difficult and painful to be here and see the ruins,” Vasquez said.
Westphalia’s Church of the Visitation is a treasured church because of its tradition and its people, he said.
“In this moment of pain and suffering, God is with us, God does not abandon his church in moments like this,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez emphasized his relief that no one was hurt.
The church is looking for a location where church services can be held, he said.
“I think we have to rebuild,” Vasquez said. “This is a place that means so much to people, there is a great love of tradition with this church.”