Popular priest dies in rectory fire

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Round Lake Centre loses beloved head of St. Casmir’s Church

Pembroke Daily Observer

20 March 2011


ROUND LAKE CENTRE – The community and St. Casmir’s Church is reeling in shock and grief following the loss of their beloved parish priest following an overnight fire.

Rev. George A. Olsen died early Sunday morning after the rectory he lived in burned to the ground. A second man, a lifelong friend of Rev. Olsen who was visiting at the time, was taken to St. Francis Memorial Hospital in Barry’s Bay. His condition remains unknown at this time.

According to a release issued by the Ontario Provincial Police, shortly after midnight March 20, a member of the Killaloe OPP was on patrol when he noticed smoke rising above the roof of the rectory at 2642 Round Lake Road. Once he learned a person remained inside structure, he attempted to enter and rescue the individual, but was driven back by the heavy smoke.

The rectory, located beside the church on Round Lake Road, would be completely destroyed in the blaze. The historic church itself wasn’t structurally damaged, thanks to the efforts of local fire crews.

Acting Fire Chief Gerry Dombroski of the Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards Township Fire Department, said they received the call around midnight, and were on the scene within minutes. By then the entire building was in flames.

“We tried to enter, but the flames were too intense,” he said, and it was quickly apparent there was nothing they could do but concentrate on saving the church.

Acting Chief Dombroski said the intensity of the flames prompted him to issue a call for mutual aid, which was responded to by members of the North Algona Wilberforce Fire Department. His biggest worry was the 200 pound propane tank located beside the church. The department paid extra attention to keeping that cool.

At the fire’s peak, 23 firefighters were on the scene battling it, along with three trucks, one rescue van, two water tankers and a pumper.

Firefighters remained on scene throughout the night and into the afternoon.

While there hasn’t been any official identification made by police of the remains found in the basement of the ruins – this will wait until a post mortem is done – word spread quickly of the loss of one of the Ottawa Valley’s most beloved priests.

Along the sides of the road facing the church and the remnants of the rectory, people from all over the region gathered Sunday to watch as members of the fire department and the Ontario Fire Marshall’s office carefully picked over the scene. A backhoe was hard at work shifting the larger pieces of debris out of the way to aid in the search for clues to the cause of the fire.

A number of priests from across the Pembroke Diocese were also on hand, chatting amongst themselves and any parishioners and passersby who needed to talk and be comforted.

Earlier in the day, Sunday Mass was held at 10:30 a.m. as scheduled, but it was conducted inside St. Casmir’s School just down the road. Bishop Michael Mulhall conducted the service personally, as all who attended were asked to remember Rev. Olsen and his family in their prayers.

Killaloe, Hagerty and Richards Mayor Janice Visneskie attended the service and like her community was deeply shaken by this turn of events.

“He was loved in the community,” she said. “This loss is just devastating.”

Mayor Visneskie said just last week Rev. Olsen conducted his annual Blue Mass for local Emergency Service workers such as paramedics, police and fire fighters.

“He was his usual happy self,” she said, milling around, joking with people, who in turn quickly warmed to him.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Father Mervin Coulas of St. Lawrence O’Toole Catholic Church in Barry’s Bay, and zone chairman of the Diocese priests, said he’ll always remember Rev. Olsen’s laugh, which he described as booming and contagious.

“He was jovial, but a quiet type of person,” he said, one who wouldn’t turn over many stones.”

Fr. Coulas recallled helping to build the rectory back in 1979, until it was completed in 1981. Most of the materials were obtained locally or donated, as was the labour and design work, making it a real community project.

The wood came from a lot the church owns, across the street from the church, which was milled nearby, he said. “It was built practically by volunteer labour.”

Born and raised in Killaloe, Rev. Olsen was ordained into the priesthood May 13, 1967, and would serve on both sides of the Ottawa River all his life.

His first parish was Deep River’s Our Lady fo Good Counsel, then he travelled to serve at St. Columbkille’s Cathedral in Pembroke, then St. Joseph and Sheenboro on Allumette Island before reaching Round Lake Centre and St. Casmir’s Church in 1994.

Rev. Olsen is survived by a brother in Killaloe and a sister who lives in Kingston. Funeral arrangements will be announced at a future date.

The Killaloe OPP, the Renfrew County Crime Unit and the Ontario Fire Marshall’s office are investigating the fatal fire.

Stephen Uhler is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist

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