Retired Toledo Firefighter Rich Duffey remembers climbing the steeple of the Historic Church of St. Patrick after it was struck by lightning and set ablaze on Sept. 9, 1980.
"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."
They ultimately did get out, and the fire was contained to the church tower. Still, black soot streaked the Gothic stone church. Standing water soaked the floor.
"To see it now, to see how beautiful it is, that is really neat," Mr. Duffey said.
Sunday, Historic St. Patrick's -- the Catholic Diocese of Toledo's unofficial firefighters' parish -- welcomed firefighters past and present for what has become an annual event.
The Rev. Dennis Hartigan, pastor of the downtown Toledo parish, credits the fire department with saving St. Patrick's.
"Their dedication and determination on Sept. 9, 1980, kept this church open," Father Hartigan wrote in a greeting to those who attended the fifth annual firefighters' Mass. "What could have been the end of this parish turned into a rebirth. Just five years ago, our steeple was restored, and we might say that it made us whole again."
The annual Mass honoring firefighters and those who have died in the line of duty fell appropriately on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 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 Township and Oregon.
"We remember those who have died. We remember those who survived," said Bishop Leonard Blair, who presided over the service. "We pray for and with our firefighters and other safety personnel and first responders."
The Mass was punctuated by patriotic songs by the St. Patrick's choir, the Toledo Fire Department's bagpipe and drum corps, its honor guard, a "last alarm" tribute delivered by retired Deputy Fire Chief Robert Schwanzl, and the familiar sound of a bugler playing "Taps."
Chief Schwanzl read the names of Toledo firefighters who have died in the line of duty, those who died in military combat in World War II, and the retired firefighters who have died since last year's firefighters' Mass. He also asked for a moment of silence for the 343 New York City firefighters who "answered their last call at the World Trade Center on this date 10 years ago."
Bishop Blair said the 9/11 attacks cast a light on both the evil and the good in the world. Across the country, he said, Sunday was to be a day of remembrance of those who died, of resolve to "reject violence and hatred in our world," and of renewal of faith and the healing power of forgiveness.
He quoted from Sirach, a passage that called wrath and anger "hateful things."
"'Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. … Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor,'" the bishop recited. "Hard words perhaps, hard words on the anniversary of Sept. 11."
Among the firefighters attending the service were several from the nearby No. 5 station on North Ontario Street. Firefighter Tony Segura said he is not Catholic but attends the firefighters' Mass at St. Patrick's every year. "It's a beautiful place," he said.
Although he did not join the fire division until 1989, he said he remembers passing by the church the day the steeple burned in 1980.
"I was on my way to work on the expressway and I saw the cross come down," he said.
William Winkle was the new Toledo fire chief back in 1980 when St. Patrick's caught fire. It was a tough blaze to battle so far off the ground, he said, but it was important that firefighters work cautiously to preserve the beautiful church.
"I made sure it wasn't a goner. I didn't want that on my record," Mr. Winkle said.
In 2008, St. Patrick's added a firefighters' altar thought to be the only one of its kind in the country.
It includes a statue of St. Florian, patron saint of firefighters, and a collection of fire department patches from around the country.
"We just felt that was something we could do for them," Father Hartigan said of the unusual altar. "When we have visiting firefighters, they always go over there to say a prayer."
Toledo Fire Chief Luis Santiago, who has attended the firefighters' Mass each year, said the department appreciates what St. Patrick's does.
He said Toledo firefighters planned to attend other events marking the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks Sunday, but mostly they would be doing what they do best.
"In respect and honor to the 343 who passed away, we're really just looking forward to doing our jobs," he said.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.