THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Fire damages South Boston church

By Jeannie Nuss
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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The smell of incense hung in the air at St. Peter Lithuanian Catholic Church in South Boston yesterday morning as parishioners gathered to pray.

Then the sound of a fire alarm ripped through the quiet of the Advent service.

Everyone escaped without injury, but the blaze sparked by the lighted incense ravaged the church’s sacristy and claimed 2 1/2 stained-glass windows.

“It’s heartbreaking when you hear the fire department hitting the stained-glass windows. It just goes through you,’’ parishioner Aldona Lingertat said yesterday in the rectory.

St. Peter pastor, the Rev. Stephen Zukas, was taken to a local hospital for evaluation. No one was seriously injured in the blaze.

The fire caused $100,000 in damages.

Several parishioners broke into tears as they stood in the cold across the street, watching firefighters enter the doors of the church, which were adorned with Christmas wreaths.

“We had just put up the crèche and the Christmas tree,’’ Lingertat said.

An artificial green tree, decorated with blue and silver ornaments and red poinsettias, stood intact yesterday, just feet away from the charred remnants of the sacristy. Sparkly shards from the ornaments peppered the soot and charred boards that were wet from the firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the flames.

“It could have been worse. It could have been during full Mass,’’ said Lingertat.

Masses for today were canceled, but parishioners hope to clear the church in time to celebrate Christmas Eve. In the meantime, nearby St. Vincent De Paul Church on E Street has invited churchgoers at St. Peter to join in their worship.

“That’s the good thing about churches,’’ said Daiva Navickas, the church organist and secretary. “We’ll support one another.’’

The fire broke out inside the red-brick church after someone lit incense that then ignited some combustible material, Boston Fire spokesman Steve MacDonald said.

Most of the damages were from the heavy smoke, which hung in the high ceilings of the church for hours after firefighters got calls at 11:34 a.m., he said.

Firefighters cracked the windows for ventilation, taking care with the jewel-toned panes.

“The firefighters didn’t want to break any of the windows because they’re beautiful stained glass,’’ MacDonald said.

Even on an overcast day like yesterday, the arched windows depicting biblical scenes glowed in hues of emerald, ruby, and sapphire.

Lingertat and Navickas did not know the age of the windows. The church was founded in 1904.

Tucked in between housing projects and alphabet streets in South Boston, St. Peter is home to a large Lithuanian community.

After the archdiocese in 2004 put St. Peter on its list of churches to close, parishioners began to place crosses outside the church echoing a pilgrimage site in northern Lithuania called the Hill of Crosses.

For the past several years, St. Peter has organized a big dinner - Lithuanian style - on Christmas Eve, geared toward immigrants and the elderly. Now they are uncertain what they will be able to do.

“We’re very hopeful that we can do something here for Christmas Eve,’’ said Navickas.

Gintaras Cepas, a parish council member who helps with repairs, said it might be possible to have the church sufficiently cleaned by Thursday to hold the dinner.

“It’ll have a little different odor,’’ Cepas said, breathing in air smelling of burnt wood and incense.

Bursts of frigid air blew into the church yesterday as clean-up crews worked inside, and the carpet squished under the boots of emergency crews boarding up the window frames.

“We would just ask that everyone pray for our parish,’’ Lingertat said. “I was baptized here. This is my parish.’’