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The third fire this month at St. Christopher's Catholic Church in the Town of Tonawanda destroyed the rear of the church, including the altar, and left close to $1 million damage early today.

Fire officials, while unwilling to say the fire was set, did agree that the cause was highly suspicious. The church, at 2660 Niagara Falls Blvd., was the scene of two previous fires this month, both also on Sundays.

"All I can tell you is that it's three fires in four weeks, and it's under investigation," Ellicott Creek Fire Chief Gerald Pomplun said.

Detectives from the Town of Tonawanda were at the scene at daybreak sorting through debris for clues that might lead them to a cause and to the identity of suspects if it is found that the fire had been set.

Preliminary estimates pegged the loss at $500,000 to the church, and between $200,000 and $300,000 to the contents.

"It's going to go close to a million (dollars)," the chief said of the total damage.

About 150 firefighters from six volunteer companies battled the two-alarm blaze, which shot flames 30 feet into the sky, and they managed to keep it from spreading to the adjacent parish elementary school.

At one point, flames started to cross the ceiling into the school, but firefighters were credited with stopping the fire from spreading. However, the school had to be closed today.

"It got a real good head start on us," Pomplun said of the fire. "When we got there, it was already through the roof, and the flames were maybe 30 feet high."

The fire, which started near the altar, burned through the roof in several places, destroyed the altar area and gutted the rest of the structure, observers said.

On Sept. 4, a fire that started in the sacristy of the church left $15,000 damage. Fire officials blamed that blaze on an electrical malfunction. One week later, on Sept. 11, a basement fire caused $1,500 damage.

Aware that fires had hit the church on successive Sundays, some firefighters stood by in their fire halls as a precautionary measure on Sept. 18. However, there was no fire that day.

The church, built in 1935, serves 1,675 families in the parish. Officials from the Diocese of Buffalo today were trying to determine where parishioners will meet until they can return to St. Christopher's.

Mass was said today in the school's meeting room, and that arrangement is expected to continue, at least for a while, said the Rev. David M. Lee, director of communications for the diocese. Officials late this morning hadn't determined when the school would reopen.

Firefighters from six volunteer companies in the Town of Tonawanda and Amherst spent two hours trying to control the fire following the first alarm at 2:52 a.m.

After the fire was declared under control at 4:59 a.m., the Ellicott Creek and North Bailey companies stayed at the scene past daybreak. Eggertsville, North Amherst, Brighton and Getzville firefighters also fought the blaze.

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