Black smoke rises from the rectory at St Lucy parish A firetruck is in the foreground

Emergency crews respond to the rectory fire at St. Lucy’s on Memorial Day.

a hallway is burned and charred after a fire in the rectory
some of the ceiling has caved in after a fire people look through books to salvage what can be saved

ROLI SRIVASTAVA is a journalist with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Ex-The Hindu, and The Times of India.

FR. CHRIS ALETI, MCCJ, is a Comboni Missionary from Uganda, currently serving the parish of St. Lucy in the North American Province in Newark, New Jersey.

By: Fr. Chris Aleti, mccj
This story first appeared in Comboni Missions Magazine fall 2021.

I came to work in the North American Province in 2014. I first worked for six years in Chicago (from November 2014 to January 2021) in the mission animation office. On January 9 of this year, I was transferred to join Fr. Paul Donohue in St. Lucy Parish in Newark, New Jersey.

It is a parish I always referred to as a “United Nation” parish, because it has so many different nationalities from different continents serving there. On Sundays we have Masses in four different languages — Italian, Spanish, English, and French.

On May 31, 2021, Memorial Day, the rectory of the parish caught fire. At around 1:30 p.m., we were celebrating Memorial Day with some families of the parish in the dining room of the rectory. It was a surprise to all of us when one of the family members detected smoke coming from one of the rooms. He immediately alerted us to evacuate the building. The police and fire department arrived within five minutes to help us put out the fire.

This was my first experience of its kind, and I was completely scared. I tried to rush to my room to collect my documents, but the police stopped me. I watched our rectory burn and it was painful for me to see.

What touched me most was the solidarity shown to us by the community of Newark. People who watched the burning of the rectory on television or Facebook could not believe it and drove directly to the parish to be with us.

The people — parishioners, strangers, and even non-Catholics — started immediately asking for a way of contributing for the rebuilding of the rectory. St. Lucy is also the site of the national shrine of St. Gerard Majella, patron saint of expectant mothers. We host our parish festival on his feast day (October 16) each year. 

People told us, “We are not Catholics, but this place means a lot to us, especially the celebration of the feast of St. Gerard in October that bring all of us together as children of God.”

When evening came, we found ourselves homeless. We did not know where to stay, or where we could go next. Fortunately, a kind and generous family took us for a night.

It is from then that we became, like so many of those we serve in the missions, internally displaced persons (IDPs). We have been hosted by the diocese in the rectory of the cathedral since June 1. It is just a ten-minutes walk from our parish to the Cathedral. We are grateful to Cardinal Joseph Tobin for receiving us to the community of the cathedral.

The work of rebuilding the rectory has not yet started. The insurance company is still discussing the damages with the diocese, which owns the property.

It is another new experience for me to commute everyday between the cathedral and the parish for our parish ministries every day.

We pray that one day we shall be able to come back to our rectory. In the meantime, we know that everything that happens has its own grace, and we ask the Lord to help us to learn and understand the grace he is giving us in this event.


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