The afternoon of April 20, 1959 was clear and sunny in Westphalia. School children from St. Mary's School dashed playfully for the waiting busses, enjoying the warm spring air. The youngsters paused only briefly to watch workmen, up on the scaffolding forty feet high, repairing the eaves on 92 year-old St. Mary's Church, which stood next to the school. As the busses pulled away, about 2:45 p.m., the school and church grounds fell into silence.
Then, just five minutes later, a cry spread through the town and the surrounding farms: "Fire in the Church!"
Suddenly, farmers, miles from Westphalia, saw smoke curl from the roof of the stately structure, a landmark that had served as the center of Westphalia life for nearly a century. Area residents flocked to the smoke-filled church, at first unable to believe the tragedy that was taking place. Defying the smoke, scores of local men, women and boys ran into the church and started carrying out anything that could be moved. Making trip after trip, they moved statues, furniture and vestments.
Father Aloysius Miller and his assistant, Father Robert Stockwell, carried out the Blessed Sacrament, chalices, and the other holy vessels used at Mass. Twelve men were needed to carry the pulpit from the burning church. Then all they could do was watch helplessly as flames crawled along the wooden beams between the metal ceiling and the copper roof. There was no doubt about the cause of the fire. The Lansing contractor repairing the eaves had been using a blowtorch as he worked. The torch ignited the dry studdings of the roof at about 2:50 p.m.
The Westphalia Fire Department arrived at the scene within minutes, and calls for additional aid were answered by fire-fighting units from St. Johns, Lansing, Fowler, Pewamo, Portland and Grand Ledge. Almost from the start it was a losing battle for the nearly 100 firemen. Although confined to the one side of the roof for a short time, the flames swept through the heavy timber beams and soon spread to all sides of the copper-covered roof. Using the aerial ladder unit from Lansing, firemen tried to contain the blaze by hacking holes in the roof and pouring in water, but the flames out-raced them.
The hands of the belfry clock stopped at 3:05 as the power to the church was cut off. Several residents noted in a photo taken for the Westphalia Centennial book in 1936, that the hands also shoved 3:05. The raging flames, tinged green from the copper roofing, broke through the belfry louvers at 4:40 p.m. Then, as many in the growing crowd wept, the fire consumed the 165-foot steeple. Weeping bystanders and weary firemen waited anxiously to see which way the towering steeple would fall. If it tumbled forward, it would hit St. Mary's Rectory, the priests' residence, where all the parish records were kept. If the steeple fell to the north, it would hit the school.
At 5:00 p.m., as though in answer to a prayer, the giant steeple swayed forward, hesitated, and miraculously shifted position. With a roar, the steeple crashed to the ground in an almost upright position amid an explosion of flames, carrying down with it the three huge bells that for generations had signaled weddings, deaths, and church services. One of the bells weighed more than a ton.
Adding to the awesome task of fighting the blaze was a wind that fanned the flames toward the front of the church. Once the flames had reached the steeple, firemen knew the battle was lost and concentrated on saving the other parish buildings. At the height of the fire, flames were visible at the Lansing airport, 25 miles away, and attracted a crowd in excess of 1,800 people, causing traffic jams.
Even as the flames blazed inside the high brick walls of the church and firemen watered down nearby buildings, Father Miller and members of the parish began preparing the Parish Hall for Sunday Masses. The hall served as the parish church for three years.
Before it burned, the impressive brick church was the largest church in Clinton County and among the largest in the State. The seating capacity was 800. The church was begun in 1867 under the pastorship of Father George Godez, successor to the founder of St. Mary's Parish, Father Anton Kopp. The bricks for the church were made in the Westphalia brickyard, a project that provided work for many Westphalians at the time. The interior finish of the church and the pews were made of black walnut from the trees in the hardwood forests surrounding the town.
Built at a total cost of $70,000.00, the old church was dedicated in 1870. Improvements were made steadily through the years and the church came to be known as one of the most beautiful in the State. The cherished building with its towering steeple stood for 92 years as a monument to the religious spirit of the Westphalia community. Families baptized their babies in the church, later saw them marry in the church and when death came, the family funerals were held in the church.
Information taken from Westphalia Area History, 1836-1976.