By Sunday morning, Sonoma County residents reeling from a week of tumult were ready for an hour of calm and contemplation.
As ash floated from the sky, they streamed toward St. Rose Catholic Church — some in their Sunday best, others in the jeans and sweatshirts they’d worn as they fled the wildfires ravaging California’s wine country.
The parishioners settled into the pews, hugging children and hymnals, hoping for an answer to the unanswerable question that has hung over the city for days.
Why do bad things happen?
“Why do bad things happen?” said the Rev. Moses Brown, as parishioners wiped away tears. “It’s hard to see justice here. It’s hard to see the fairness here.”
Destroyed homes, forced evacuations and the ashy sky may make parishioners feel helpless, Brown acknowledged. But when life settles into a normal rhythm again, regular days will feel that much sweeter.
“We can see the light when it’s dark,” Brown said.
As Brown spoke about the fire’s victims, and his belief in life after death, Santa Rosa resident Jim Schettler began to cry. His granddaughter, sitting next to him, squeezed him and kissed his cheek.
After more than two decades as empty nesters, Schettler and his wife are again living with their daughter, Teresa Gathman, who moved in with them after her home in Fountaingrove was destroyed.
The Gathmans had 20 minutes to evacuate. Gabriella, 15, packed her yearbook, some school books and the new clothes she’d been given on her birthday. Teresa packed a wedding album and the family’s important papers. Her husband took his computer.
Then they got in the car with the family dog, Lucy, and their two guinea pigs. Hours later, their home on Fountaingrove Circle was gone.
“I keep forgetting I can’t run home and grab what I need,” Gabriella said.
She is sleeping on an air mattress in the living room of her grandparents’ house in Santa Rosa. Teresa is in her childhood bedroom with her husband.
“So much of this is out of our hands now,” Teresa said. “We just have to remember to have patience, and wait for each step to be revealed with time.”
The Gathman family is looking forward to returning to salvage what they can, Teresa said. A family friend built them a “sifter,” made with a wooden frame and a piece of screen, that will help sort out anything worth keeping from the ashy remains of the home.
In a pew toward the back, Mike Ramirez, 54, began to cry as the choir sang “Amazing Grace.”
“Right now, all I have is the clothes on my back,” said Ramirez, who fled his home in Larkfield-Wikiup and didn’t know the extent of the damage. “I know I have to have faith. It’s just hard.”
Ramirez said the outpouring of support from the community was comforting but could not erase the scars the city will carry from the fires, or answer the questions he keeps asking himself.
I know I have to have faith... It’s just hard.”
“This is a city of good, honest people,” Ramirez said. “Why here? Why us?”
Santa Rosa’s Catholic community did not emerge unscathed, either. A preschool building at the St. Rose School burned to the ground, and Cardinal Newman High School lost its computer lab, library, art center and more than 20 classrooms.
An estimated 20% of families at the high school lost their homes, mostly in Fountaingrove, Brown said.
Brown, who teaches at the high school, lost rosaries and hundreds of Bibles that were stored in his office. Those can be replaced, he said.
But he mourns the loss of a Bible that was given to his mother by her grandfather, a Protestant minister, in the 1950s. For decades, she had dutifully noted the family’s births, deaths and marriages inside.
After the service, as parishioners walked toward the parish hall for coffee and doughnuts, Teresa Gathman and her mother, Jean Schettler, stopped to talk to Brown. He hugged Schettler, then turned to Gathman to ask how she was.
“We got out with what’s important,” Gathman said.
“The most important things aren’t things,” Brown said. “They’re people.”
Times photographer Genaro Molina contributed to this report.