ST. BENEDICT – Fire damaged the main administration building at St. Joseph Abbey early Wednesday, but Archbishop Gregory Aymond said there were no injuries and educational activities at St. Joseph Seminary College would resume on Thursday.
Pius X Hall, which has administrative offices and a number of seminarian dorm rooms, was damaged by the fire. State fire officials were on the scene to determine the cause of the fire, but Benedictine Father Gregory Bouquet, rector of the seminary, said he suspected that it originated in the computer room, whose cinderblock construction prevented it from spreading out of control.
While most of the damage was located in the central business offices, 64 seminarians who lived in dorms in the building evacuated without injury. There was smoke damage to the seminarians' rooms, Father Bouquet said, but apparently those rooms escaped major damage.
Members of St. Tammany Parish District 12 Fire Department responded within five to eight minutes to the fire alarm, which went off about 2:30 a.m.
"They did a superb job," said Father Bouquet, who was among those forced to vacate the St. Pius X dormitory in the wee hours. "The whole building could have been destroyed had they not acted as they did."
Roused from their beds by smoke alarms, the 64 seminarians were evacuated safely from the building.
Father Bouquet said the affected seminarians would be relocated to other accommodations on the abbey grounds – the Christian Life Center where retreats are held – while their rooms are being restored. Administrative offices will be temporarily moved to Borromeo Hall, the main classroom building, he said, following a meeting in which members of the seminary faculty discussed ways to restore the site's Internet connection in time for Thursday classes.
"There was a lot of damage in the main building, but thank God no one was hurt," Archbishop Aymond said Wednesday morning.
The Louisiana State Fire Marshal's office said the fire started around 2:30 a.m. "and damaged the sleeping dormitories. Sixty-five people were alerted by the fire detection system and escaped safety."
The seminarians had participated in a fire drill just a couple of weeks earlier. At the end of August, classes were closed for several days because of Hurricane Isaac.
"Hurricane Isaac came, and now we have another situation with fire, so the image that came to our minds is that we are being tested, as Job was," Father Bouquet said. "One student told me, 'You know, Father, this will be a good preparation for the priesthood – to understand what it means to be patient and to learn how to deal with suffering.'"