A column of fire and smoke rose Sunday afternoon from the historic parish house at St. Mary's Catholic Church of Two Inlets.

Not to worry; the fire was planned. The parish donated it to the Park Rapids Fire Department to be burned as a training exercise for several new and inexperienced firefighters. Joining the PRFD for the exercise were firefighters from Carsonville and Nevis.

Training exercise

Park Rapids Assistant Fire Chief Ben Cumber was at the practice fire as an instructor with Fire Instruction and Rescue Education Inc. (FIRE). As the event got rolling, Cumber explained the two kinds of burns that were to be used to train new firefighters.

A Level 1 burn, he said, is where a group of trainee firefighters line up and take a knee in front of a pile of wood and straw in the corner of a room, and an instructor lights it in front of them. This allows them to see how a fire develops from ignition to decay, and work on controlling the flow of water.

"We'll watch it roll over," said Cumber. "We'll learn how to hit up high to control indirect attack. Eventually, they'll put it out."

As for Level 2, he said, the instructor lights a fire inside the house while the trainees are outside. "They'll have to make a loop around the house, figure out what's burning, and then go in and put it out," said Cumber. "We'll do that till either everybody's through or the house is no longer safe."

Safety is a priority throughout both levels, he noted. "They'll be one instructor with the group, and then there's always two instructors behind them, on a separate hose line. So, they're always protected no matter what."

Fire Chief Terry Long said the practice benefited four new Park Rapids firefighters, only one of whom had previous experience with another department.

"It's a huge training tool for us," said Long. "You get to see what fire looks like and how it behaves and how you can function inside it."

FIRE Inc. does "a nice job of giving our newest guys some experience, so they can see how fire builds and how it works, so the first thing you see isn't this wall of flame, that scares people," he said. "The idea of Level 1 is to get people comfortable, so that by the time you get to Level 2, you're not frightened to go into the thing. Because it is pretty intimidating, to go into a dark room that's full of smoke and fire."

End of an era

According to parish member Marguerite Henry, Father Thomas Friedl - who also serves St. Peter the Apostle Church in Park Rapids, where his rectory is located - announced Sunday morning that "by the end of the day, it's all going to be in the basement."

Bystanders, including Henry and her sister, Sharon McFarren, watched as the building went up, came down and passed into history.

McFarren predicted that the debris would be plowed into the basement and covered with dirt for the time being.

"I heard there was a lot of mold in the basement," said McFarren. "It's not used. It's old, and it's not taken care of. So, I'm guessing it's time for it to be down. But there's a lot of memories there. This was our childhood church, where our parents got married back in 1948."

"We both got married here," Henry reminded her. Both sisters recalled taking a pre-marital class their with their husbands.

"So, now we're down to a garage and a church here," said McFarren.

"It's so beyond repair that it doesn't pay to even try to fix it up anymore," agreed parish member Audrey Eischens, whose husband's grandparents donated the land for the church in 1904.

She recalled the parish house being used, over the years, not only as a residence for the pastor but also as a religious education center. "We'd have catechism classes there," she said, "and for a while, we had a group of nuns that lived there over the summer while they were teaching catechism at different places around the area."

She said there are currently no plans to build anything on the site. "There have been some ideas batted around," she said, "like put up a social hall that would be handicap accessible. It would be nice if they could build something, but that remains to be seen."

Nevertheless, she said, "It's very said. End of an era."