Toledo Irish: Saint Florian Firefighter Shrine at Historic Saint Patrick Church Toledo
by Maury Collins
The Historic Church of St. Patrick is a parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo, located at 130 Avondale Avenue in Toledo, Ohio. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
On September 9, 1980, the 240 foot steeple was destroyed by fire, caused by a lightning strike. The Toledo Fire Department’s ladder trucks could not reach that high. Gabriel Edwards told me that she didn’t know how the firefighters got through the maze between the choir loft and the steeple. They then had to climb up narrow wooden ladders left from the construction of the church.
Retired Toledo Firefighter Rich Duffy remembers climbing up inside the steeple “There were six of us up in the steeple when that cross collapsed,” he said, referring to the copper-clad cross at the top of the 90-foot steeple. “A couple of us were diving under the bells because there was a lot of debris coming down and we couldn’t get out of there.”
I spoke with Mr. Duffy at a reception in the Church’s parking lot in 2007 after the blessing of the new cross to be placed on the restored steeple. I thanked him for his service and told him that I admired his courage. He told me that he was pretty scared under the bell.
I said; “Yes, but you stayed there and saved the church.” His response was that he was only doing his job. Falling debris of the cross fell onto and damaged the roof. The firefighters were able to extinguish that fire before it go to the interior wooden beams, thus saving the church from total destruction
After her death February 25, 2006, Parishioner Margaret Tank bequeathed funds for the steeple’s reconstruction and other upgrades in the church. The steeple and other projects were completed August 28, 2007.
On September 9thof that year, St. Patrick’s Historic Church welcomed firefighters past and present for what has become an annual event. The Rev. Dennis Hartigan, pastor of the downtown Toledo parish at that time, credits the fire department with saving St. Patrick’s.
“Their dedication and determination on September 9, 1980, kept this church open. What could have been the end of this parish turned into a rebirth. Among those who filled the church to standing-room capacity were 100 or so firefighters, mostly from Toledo, but also from suburban departments, including Perrysburg, Oregon and Washington Township. The Toledo Fire Department Drum and Pipe band led the procession in.
After the Mass, Father Denny suggested that a side altar be permanently dedicated to firefighters. A side altar in the Historic Church of Saint Patrick was dedicated to St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, and contains badges from fire departments all across the United States and the world. Retired Toledo Firefighter Dave Meegan and retired Perrysburg Firefighter Gabriel Edwards have maintained the altar from the beginning. Dave tells me that the special firefighter altar is the only one in the United States and perhaps the world. There are parishes named for St. Florian, but no special altar within a church dedicated to the Saint and the Firefighters.
During the annual Mass, observed on the second Sunday of September, there is a ceremony in which a bell is rung three times for each area Firefighter who had died since the last Firefighter’s Mass. In 2010, an 11 year old boy died from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) in Liberty Center, Ohio. The boy was a big fan of Firefighters, so the Liberty Center Fire Department gave him a Firefighter’s funeral. His casket rode on the back of a fire engine to the cemetery.
At the annual Mass that year, Ricky’s name was read along, with the Firefighters who had passed, and the bell rang three times for him. Representatives of the Liberty Center Fire Department were present and very thankful. There is a photo of Ricky on the side wall of the altar along with a picture showing the 343 Firefighters who died while fulfilling their duties at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Items that have been added to the altar under the watch of the current pastor, Monsignor Chris Vasko, are a statue of Sr. Florian from Italy and a banner of St. Florian. Firefighter Phil Kensecker, who helped fight the September 9, 1980 fire, donated his helmet, which sits on top of the altar. There are also restored lanterns, originally used to light the way and firefighting equipment such as an axe, a halligan and fire extinguishers.
There was a special Mass held on Sunday January 27, 2019 for the dedication of a class one relic of Sr. Florian and a blessing of an artifact that came from the World Trade Center. Those two items are now a part of the Firefighters Altar. If you are traveling on the I-75 highway going into Toledo from the South, you can’t miss the beautiful Church at the top of a hill. Stop by, and if the church is open, come in to see the altar and say a prayer for the brave men and women, who protect us.