Early morning blaze destroys Saltillo church

SALTILLO – An early morning fire that destroyed St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church on Sunday is believed to have been an accident.
The fire was reported to E-911 by travelers who saw the flames from nearby U.S. 45 just at 4:41 a.m. The church was empty, and no one was injured.
The Rev. Tom Lalor, pastor of St. Thomas and St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, was notified about 6 a.m. and was at the fire scene later Sunday morning as firefighters sifted through the rubble and doused the smoking embers.
Lalor said that after talking with local and state fire officials, “It appears it’s an accident.”
David Wood, Guntown Fire Chief and one of the first firefighters on the scene, said the building was so badly damaged that it will take a few days of investigation to determine the fire’s cause.
The church, a mission of St. James, celebrates weekly Mass only on Saturdays and does not have any Sunday services. Built in 1965, the brick structure at 612 Road 683 replaced a wooden building that went up in the 1920s.
The small church usually attracted 65-70 people to its Masses, said parishioner Joe Barrett, whose ancestors donated the land on which the church sits.
He was among the few dozen people at the fire site watching the cleanup, which included the retrieval of charred artifacts such as a Latin bible and the church’s holy water font.
Firefighters left the scene at 9:40 a.m.
Lalor said it will be up to the parish and the Diocese of Jackson to decide whether the church will be rebuilt.
In the meantime, he said, the Saturday Mass schedule will continue at the parish hall next door.
Despite the loss of the building and uncertainty about a new church, Lalor was confident that the parish would rebound.
“People here will rise to the occasion,” he said.
Added Jimmy Hauss, another parishioner, “Faith is stronger than a building.”
Hauss’ daughter, Kayla, helped clean up on Sunday and said she’s still in shock about the fire.
“I don’t know what to think,” she said. “This is the first church I remember.”
Barrett echoed her feelings.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “I was raised up in that church. There’s been a church there all my life, and my father’s life before me … It’s a special place.”
Contact Michael Tonos at (662) 678-1605 or mike.tonos@djournal.com. Contact Sheena Barnett at (662) 678-1580 or sheena.barnett@djournal.com.

Michael Tonos and Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal