Share this story

Rising From the Ashes

By Mitchell Palmquist

Rising From the Ashes

St. Charles Parish and School Return to Campus

This September as students return to school throughout the diocese, some students will be facing a bigger return than others. Students of St. Charles will be returning to campus for the first time since a fire tore through the building on March 18, 2021.

Fire and Recovery

In the early morning hours of March 18, Father Esteban Soler woke up to a pounding on his rectory door and windows. A Spokane police officer was trying to wake Father Soler to alert him to a fire in the attached offices. Providentially, the officer happened to be parked in the St. Charles parking lot and saw the flames.

The fire itself was quickly deemed suspicious. Flames tore through the eastern wing of the school complex, damaging the offices, gym, and parish rectory. Smoke damage affected the entire campus, including the church and all the classrooms.

Soler contacted school principal Heather Schlaich and before parish and school families were awake, they made plans to move the school online for the following two weeks. The school and parish grieved, but also worked to return students to class and families to worship, first at the Cathedral, and then in a tent behind the church.

St. Charles Catholic School scrambled to find a temporary location. Spokane Public Schools had a location available: the old Jefferson elementary building on Spokane’s south hill. The new location was affectionately named Camp St. Charles. This act of solidarity between the public schools and St. Charles typified the reaction from the community. Messages of support rolled in from all over the city, country, and even the world. One message came from the director of the medical bureau at the Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, offering prayers for the school and parish.

On March 22, police arrested Rio Antonio Mirabal in connection with the fire. Mirabal, a 22-year-old man who suffers f from mental illness, is suspected of igniting the fire. Mirabal is also suspected of tearing apart and burning a bible in the neighborhood after he left St. Charles.

The Inland Catholic asked principal Heather Schlaich how the school community responded to the fire.

“There was the initial shock of it all and feeling that the building was violated in such a profound way,” she said, “but I think that ultimately it was a coming together as a family and a spirit of ‘we’re in this together, were going to get through this together, and we're going to come out of this stronger and lift each other up.’”

Next Steps

While the damage from the fire was extensive, the bulk was to the roof and attic spaces; the school offices and gym will be able to be remodeled and repaired and undergo asbestos abatement. In the meantime, Schlaich said the school will use an extra classroom for administrative offices.

The classrooms endured heavy smoke damage and needed cleaning and repairs. For many teachers, this presents a difficult challenge as they prepare to return to the classroom, as much of their classroom art, teaching aides, and other items were not recoverable. Schlaich said this was a difficult realization for teachers, and required extra effort over the summer for teachers to be able to prepare their classrooms for the fall.

At the time of writing, Father Soler said one hallway remains to be prepared prior to students arriving for the first day of class. Students are eager to return, and the staff is eager to welcome them back.

“I think that the biggest hope is that when the students return, they’ll see that the classrooms are still there and it’s OK,” Schlaich said. “A lot of our students, especially the younger ones, were worried their books were gone, and the pictures were gone, and things like that. And yes, those things are gone but, the classrooms are still there. It’s our home.”