All Saints Church at 1321 Indian Creek Road in Happy Camp in Siskiyou County, a mission of Sacred Heart Parish in Fort Jones, was destroyed Sept. 8 in the Slater Fire currently still burning in the Klamath National Forest.
In the aftermath of the destruction, Bishop Jaime Soto offered Mass on Sunday, Sept. 20 in Sacred Heart Church in Fort Jones, for parishioners of Sacred Heart and All Saints Mission. "The communities of Fort Jones and Happy Camp were brokenhearted about the loss of their church," Bishop Soto said. "I grieved with them. While listening to their sorrows about losing their spiritual home, it was a consolation to hear the resilience of their faith and their enduring trust that the Good Shepherd would guide them through this tearful calamity."
The bishop added: "Let us join with our brothers and sisters throughout California, whose lives have been afflicted by the scorching flames and billowing, blinding smoke, May the wisdom and mercy of Jesus help us all keep one another in the communion of his one mind and one heart."
"The face of this Slater Fire has brought to the community of All Saints the knowledge that God has walked with them throughout," said Father Ronald Torres, parochial administrator of Sacred Heart Parish in Fort Jones, St. Joseph Parish in Yreka, and the mission churches of both parishes. "I also feel that there was a burning bush even outside the community (Exodus 3:2, "The bush, though on fire, was not consumed.") People are reaching out to people. People are helping people. People are wanting to help and finding those affected by this devastating fire. People want to go forward with them to recovery, moving forward so they can begin to manifest a stronger community once more. There is an emergency and only we, the people of God, his body, can keep the fire burning and from the ashes of the church will stand a new and beautiful mission church, as our Mother Nature is teaching us a lesson, to care for our souls and come back to the church."
Deacon Charles Werner serves both Sacred Heart Parish and St. Joseph Parish in Yreka and its missions. He has lived since 2001 on state Highway 96 near Horse Creek. He said All Saints Mission was destroyed during the evening of Sept. 8, as well as more than 150 homes in Happy Camp, which had 1,190 residents at the 2010 census count. It is the headquarters of the Karuk Tribe.
Before the church burned on Sept. 8, Deacon Werner was able with the assistance of a sheriff’s deputy to get inside and rescued the Blessed Sacrament, sacred vessels, the relics from the altar, vestments and many of the irreplaceable paintings and Stations of the Cross in the church done by parishioner and local artist Diann Hokanson in 2007. He hasn’t been able to return to the church since, because Happy Camp is still closed except for safety personnel.
The small church, which was surrounded by trees, was built in 1997-98 and included a hall, kitchen, classrooms and a room for a priest to stay overnight. It is located about a mile outside the main part of Happy Camp.
The Slater Fire started during the night of Sept. 7, near Slater Butte Fire Lookout on the Klamath National Forest. It is currently burning in the Klamath, Six Rivers, and Rogue-Siskiyou National Forests in Siskiyou and Del Norte Counties in California and Josephine County in Oregon.
As of Sept. 25, two people have been confirmed dead from the fire. The Slater Fire is estimated at 152,232 acres in timber and is 25 percent contained. Structures remain threatened and evacuation orders remain in effect for Indian Creek and Thompson Creek.
On the southern end of the fire, the town of Happy Camp on Sept. 15 was beginning to repopulate somewhat as it was deemed safe for return. Structure protection in the Highway 96 corridor upriver of Happy Camp continued as well as mop-up, where fire lines are secure. Most evacuation orders had been changed to evacuation advisories and Pacific Power was working to restore power to the town.
Deacon Werner said Sept. 16 that he and his wife, Doortje, had returned to their home after evacuating on Sept. 10. They were contacting as many of the 15-20 parishioners of the mission church as possible by phone. “I have heard through third parties that perhaps one parishioner lost her home,” he said. “Most of our parishioners live further south of the church and firefighters were able to save the southern part of Happy Camp.”
“We know the church is not just a building, it’s the people that that make up our community. We want to be here for them,” he said. “Many parishioners are older and have been sheltering at home during the pandemic, so we haven’t seen them as often.”
“If there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s how very little I have under my control,” he said. “I’m still alive and our people are still alive out there. It’s amazing that the Gospel the week prior to the church burning was Matthew 18:15-20, which reminds us that where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, he is in the midst of us. So I’m going to continue to serve the people of Happy Camp as long as I have the strength and ability from God to do it and have people to serve. My biggest fear was that fire was going to destroy the town and that didn’t happen.
“I have to think that All Saints in Happy Camp was part of the reason the town wasn’t destroyed,” he added. “I never know what God’s plan is as he doesn’t give me the blueprints.”
He noted that All Saints parishioners “are extremely faithful. They come to Stations of the Cross every Friday during Lent. Everyone who is physically capable of coming attends. I’ve seen miracles out of this little church. God’s got a reason for keeping it here and as long as he wants it here I’m here to help him. If anything has convinced me of the difference between the material and the spiritual in my life, this fire event is it. God doesn’t give us a challenge that he doesn’t also give us the grace to handle it.”