A fire that started in the basement caused heavy damage Friday night to St. Anthony’s Church at Nott Street and Seward Place.
About 30 firefighters from Schenectady and Scotia were called to the 115-year-old Roman Catholic church at 5:30 p.m.
“On arrival, we had a heavy smoke condition in the church, we had a few people actually in the church,” Schenectady Fire Chief Raymond A. Senecal said. “We had to show them the way out. It wasn’t a rescue, we just had to show them the way out.”
Firefighters had not released an official cause of the blaze late Friday night. Rev. Richard Carlino, pastor of both St. Anthony’s and nearby St. John the Evangelist Church, suspects a furnace malfunction started the problem.
“It seems as though there was a new blower put on the furnace [Thursday] and the furnace caught fire,” Carlino said.
Carlino, who has served as the Fire Department’s chaplain, blinked back tears as parishioners embraced him on the Seward Place side of the church. “What could have happened, that’s the scary part,” he said. “Somebody could have been killed. The church could have burned down.”
Carlino also said two people inside the church chapel didn’t even smell any smoke. He talked to Senecal as firefighters maneuvered hoses and used a large fan near the front doors to clear smoke from the brick building.
“Is there structural damage to the inside of the church?” Carlino asked.
“The floor area, but nothing that can’t be repaired,” Senecal replied.
The chief said the thick smoke was the initial concern. He said there was “zero visibility” inside the church.
“You don’t want to get your men separated in a building this big,” Senecal said. “We have a lot of water and smoke damage in the church. We were trying not to do any damage to the windows; we had to take one or two, no way around it. For the safety of the men we had to … we didn’t want anyone getting hurt or separated.”
Senecal said one firefighter suffered smoke inhalation and was taken to Ellis Hospital for treatment.
“We had a lot of fire damage in the basement,” Senecal added. “It burnt through to the first floor. It was a very aggressive fire attack by the men, they did a nice job. I’m proud of them.”
St. Anthony’s, like other Christian churches, has just started the busy Lenten season. Carlino said Sunday services scheduled for St. Anthony’s will be held at St. John the Evangelist. He expected signs would be posted at St. Anthony’s.
Fire vehicles packed Seward Place and Park Place, which border the church. Parishioners gathered as firefighters continued clean-up efforts.
Bill Sherman of Rotterdam said he attends the 8 a.m. weekday Mass Monday through Friday.
“Nothing can stop the feeling we have for this community and for this church,” Sherman said. “Father Carlino has always said the church is just a building and so luckily, with the two parishes already united, there’s a place to worship. It’s not going to impact, I believe, anything we do as a community.”
Mary Ann Ruscitto and her sister Carmella Ruscitto said their great-grandfather, Nicola Ruscitto, helped found the church. Both women are lifelong members of the St. Anthony’s parish.
“It shakes you up a little bit,” Mary Ann Ruscitto said, adding she and Carmella were attending evening services at St. John the Evangelist when someone said fire had broken out at St. Anthony’s.
“We had to leave,” she said. “We had to come and see what was going on.”
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy was also at the scene.
“It’s just a sad event,” he said. “You get these old institutions, it’s just so emotional.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.