Church left standing after Camp Fire

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PARADISE, Calif. (KTXL) -- The parishioners of St. Thomas More Catholic church share much more than a common faith. They have literally been through fire together.

It’s not a stretch to say it’s a miracle they’re here, gathering for Sunday mass.

When flames engulfed the town of Paradise on Nov. 8 last year, the church was surrounded by fire. Many of the buildings belonging to the parish, including the priests' residence, were destroyed.

Longtime parishioner Greg Kidder and his wife Yvonne lost their home in the fire, but he says during that crisis, what was on his mind even more was the church.

"The fire department was here the night of the fire. I am truly thankful for that. They were protecting what they could. But it was very, very intense,” Kidder said. “This wall actually collapsed, ignited this bush here, and cracked that window. This is a single pane window. It was the only thing between us and destroying the entire church inside. They were hosing it down."

Before the fire, Kidder was the parish plant manager.

"He and Yvonne day to day would wonder where they were going to sleep the next night. But yet they were very committed to the recovery of this parish,” close friend Jim Collins said.

“Actually, it’s interesting how God puts in front of you something always bigger than yourself. And you have to responded to that,” Kidder said. “The first question, obviously, ‘where is everyone? Did they make it out okay?’”

Some did not make it out. Three parishioners died in the fire.

Many others have moved away because of it. The congregation is too small now to have a full-time priest.

They used to have 733 registered families and four masses each weekend. Now, Father Martin Ramat, pastor of a church in Chico, drives up for a single 1 p.m. mass on Sundays, attended by about 150 people.

“We used to fill this church up every Sunday. You seen how many were here today,” parishioner Tom Walker said.

“We miss the people that can’t come here anymore,” parishioner Judy Walker said.

“A lot of these people were really good friends of ours. And they moved away,” Tom added.

Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto could have closed the parish. He could have decided there simply aren't enough parishioners anymore to justify keeping it open. Instead he recognized, this parish needs to be here for this community.

“His comments, he said, 'Paradise is still a parish.' When he said those words, that we are still a parish, I knew that we needed to stay together or we would lose this parish. We would merely close the doors. He came up with this idea of appointing me parish steward, a very unique position. I humbly take that,” Kidder said.

The appointment essentially put Kidder in charge of running the church, just without the sacramental duties of a priest.

That's where Fr. Ramat comes in, making the most of his weekly visits.

“I just love coming up here, celebrating with the people. And there is this enthusiasm, desire,” he said. “There's always light in them to move on to move forward."

“It was so wonderful to come home, and to see our church and to see that it was intact,” Judy Walker said.

“I'm grateful to God that this did survive,” Kidder said. “Parish life is slowly coming back."

Some displaced parishioners drive many miles to St. Thomas every Sunday now from their new homes.

“Orland, Oroville, Chico," parishioner and Paradise High School graduate Jacob Weldon said.

The church offering the comfort of something familiar.

“That's the one thing that I went to besides the high school that hadn't burned down,” Weldon told FOX40. “It felt really nice to have something still there."

“I think most of the folks have a real sense of the trauma that one another experienced and they want to help them through that and the recovery effort,” Collins said.

“They need the church at that moment. They need their faith, to know it’s in action,” Kidder said.

Parishioners like Francisco Garcia have hope that as the town rebuilds, the family will grow, the pews will fill up again.

"You know, I feel like my family's here," he said. "Talking to people, a lot of people are coming back."

The parish is also involved in a number of outreach ministries, helping meet the needs of people trying to recover from the Camp Fire.

"We couldn't just be victims, allowing others to care for us. We had to get back into ministry," Kidder told FOX40. "Christ came here to teach us what relationship is really about. We are experiencing that, what relationship is. In this shared experience of the fire and the recovery, we've all had opportunity to reflect on what really matters. And what really matters is family. And we are a family. That is our faith."

A relief fund for the church itself can be found here.

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