The call came in about 1:30 a.m. to Los Angeles City Fire Station Number 10 on South Olive Street as a “structure fire.” The date was Monday, September 5, 1983 — Labor Day. The structure was historic St. Joseph Church, an 80-year-old French Gothic-style church and a distinct landmark in the downtown business district.Among the first fire fighters to the scene was Steve Ruda, a former seminarian and today a captain, battalion chief and a 35-year LAFD veteran, who recalls “billowing smoke” rising from the church at 12th and Los Angeles Streets.“It really broke my heart to see it was the church,” Ruda recalled in a recent interview. “The flames were reflected on all the windows of all the surrounding buildings. It was a challenging fire; we used heavy streams of water, 500 gallons per minute.” Hours later, the flames — stemming from frayed sub-floor wiring in the lower level of the church — were extinguished. Although the firemen were able to save many old vestments and sacred vessels in the sacristy, the altars were partially burned and the roof collapsed. A photo in a following issue of The Tidings shows Fireman Clint Shelton handing the ciborium from the tabernacle to St. Joseph’s pastor, Franciscan Father Felipe Baldonado. The priest gave the firemen an unusual memento for their heroic efforts — a crucifix with the body of Christ partly melted, and one hand reaching out. According to Ruda, that relic is still enshrined in the fire station on Olive Street.A month after the fire, all that remained was the shell of the church (previously listed as L.A. Historic Cultural Monument No. 15). A demolition permit was issued and the stately edifice became a “lost legacy.” The loss of St. Joseph Church saddened many in Los Angeles, Catholic or not. The late Roger Wagner, founder of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and previously music director at St. Joseph’s, recalled in a 1991 Tidings interview playing organ and conducting the choir at many Sunday Masses in the old church.“I cried when it burned down,” he said.Soon after the fire, Tidings Editor Al Antczak memorialized the event. “St. Joseph’s is gone from our lives,” he wrote. “It was everybody’s church and is now broken, ashen. Temporal things pass away but the life of the spirit, formed and deepened at St. Joseph’s, does not.”The new church, completed by 1987, retains some elements from the old classical building. Gothic arches form the main entrance with bricks salvaged from the fire and doors from the old confessionals form part of the baptistery. Most of the new art is the work of Franciscan Father Gino Piccoli who designed the stained glass windows as brilliant creations that honor St. Francis’ hymns to Brother Sun, Sister Moon and the Canticle of the Sun. (Father Piccoli died April 15 at age 72.)In the reredos behind the main altar in the center is a huge painting of Christ, in earth colors and bordered on each side in a similar style by these images: Mary, Saints Joseph, Mary Magdalen, Peter, Clare of Assisi, Benedict of Africa, Rose of Lima, Elizabeth of Hungary, Kateri Tekawitha, Francis of Assisi, Paul and Padre Serra. On a side wall, carved in large letters, is the prayer of St. Francis. An original painting by John August Swanson, “Let down your nets,” hangs in the side entrance. A tile mosaic by Isabel Piczek, depicting the original church surrounded by flames, is on the side of the church on 12th Street.The parish itself, founded in 1888, continues with some 1,500 registered families, with three Masses in Spanish on Sundays and its parish school, St. Turibius on Essex Street, serving grades K-8.Indeed, even though “the fires of earth” attempted to destroy it, the spirit of St. Francis still permeates this modernized version of the original{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0830/stjoseph/{/gallery}