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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

St. Charles Church begins to heal as arson suspect’s uncle calls for more mental health services

UPDATED: Wed., March 31, 2021

When Rev. Esteban Soler came to St. Charles Parish in 2019, he immediately saw that its school was in trouble, with enrollment down. Soler thought back to his own classical education and decided to make a change.

“I knew the joy and I knew how helpful it was for me,” Soler said of his classical education.

So Soler, along with Principal Heather Schlaich, found a classical curriculum that would fit St. Charles. The new style of teaching was implemented this year, and the school has already seen an increase in enrollment.

“It’s about teaching kids how to think instead of what to think so that when they become adults and enter the world they can be critical thinkers,” Schlaich said.

For the entirety of the school year, St. Charles has managed to be in person despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been an important part of the conversational classical model.

Then a few months ago, Soler’s father fell ill in Argentina and he returned home, just in time to be with him before he died.

It was the day after Soler returned from his extended stay in Argentina when the church rectory and office buildings were set aflame.

Rio Antonio Mirabal, 22, was arrested on suspicion of arson and malicious mischief in connection to the fire.

Mirabal’s uncle Uriah Mirabal said his nephew has struggled with mental illness for years and that the systems in place to help him have failed.

On the morning of March 18, Soler was awoken by a Spokane Police Officer banging on the rectory windows.

“I heard the banging on my window and somebody presented as a police officer; when I came out he said there’s a fire,” Soler said.

Soler was under the impression that the fire was outdoors, a common occurrence lately with homeless people setting fires to keep warm, he said.

But when he looked into the office windows, Soler saw flames inside.

He went back to the rectory to grab his phone and documents.

“When I come out for the second time, the flames are going up the roof and I knew at that time that it was pretty much done,” Soler said.

The rectory, offices and some classrooms sustained significant damage, while the sanctuary sustained smoke damage.

Soler immediately called Schlaich but in his frustrated state, he undersold the severity of the fire.

“I don’t know if he remembers, but he told me that everything was okay and to go back to sleep,” Schlaich said, with a chuckle.

“It was – I was,” Soler joked back.

Weeks after the fire, the church is working to get back to normal.

Services will resume at St. Charles this weekend for Easter, despite the sanctuary being closed due to smoke damage.

The church has set up a large tent behind the school near the sports field where the holy week service will be held.

“We will have our our liturgical services on site; that is something that our parishioners appreciate and something very much needed for our community,” Soler said.

After the fire was tamed by the Spokane Fire Department, Schlaich began to work with fellow administrators to make a plan for the 130 students who were set to arrive for class hours later.

Schlaich called teachers, who contacted families individually.

“Rather than a mass call, I felt it was really important to be more personal in a crisis-type situation,” Schlaich said.

Since the day of the fire, students have received instruction online. Schlaich and the school administration are continuing to evaluate their options and a few spaces have been offered for the school to meet until St. Charles can be repaired.

Students could be in person after spring break, Schlaich said.

Since Mirabal was arrested last week, there has been some closure for the church community.

“It’s good that they caught him,” Soler said. “So he doesn’t cause harm to anybody else, so that he can get the help that he needs.”

Uriah Mirabal said the last decade has been spent watching his nephew slip through the cracks without that much-needed help.

“He’s had a hard go at life, for sure,” Uriah Mirabal said.

The two were close when Rio was a child, but when he became a teenager, Rio’s family started seeing a change in him beyond a typical teenage rebellion, Uriah Mirabal said.

By the time Rio was 18, he was homeless and only kept in sporadic touch with his family, Uriah Mirabal said.

Uriah Mirabal, who is also someone estranged from his family, said he had tried to help Rio, but his sisters had done even more, offering a place to stay and helping him get treatment.

Rio has been in and out of treatment but once he leaves a program, he struggles to stay on his medication, Uriah Mirabal said.

“As a society, we have to step in and intervene,” Uriah Mirabal said.

Now that Rio is behind bars, Uriah Mirabal hopes that he gets consistent treatment or at least medication.

“Fortunately, I hate to use that word, but he might be able to get the care he needs on a consistent level,” Uriah Mirabal said.

When Rio’s face appeared in a Spokane Police Department news release, it was his aunt who called law enforcement to tell them she recognized him, according to court documents.

For Schlaich, that fact means the Mirabal family needs even more prayer and love.

“I think it’s really important that we keep them in our minds and our hearts, because that had to have been very difficult for a family member,” Schlaich said.

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