HARTFORD – Ernest LaRose claims that he didn’t actually fight the fire that destroyed the original Gothic brownstone Cathedral of St. Joseph on the frigid morning of Dec. 31, 1956. “We came in on the second alarm,” said the now-retired member of Company 7 of the Hartford Fire Department. “What we were doing more than anything else was pulling hose to help out the first few companies to get in there.”
Fire department records say it was 12 degrees on that New Year’s Eve Monday morning. Francis Macken, the cathedral’s engineer, entered the lower cathedral at about 5 a.m. He unlocked the boiler room, put on the lights, started the oil pump, closed the sewer valves, opened the boiler valves and lit the burners. He waited in the boiler room for about a half hour for the steam pressure to come up and then turned on the valves to heat the church.
He did not see Joseph Martin, the sacristan, arrive at the cathedral at about 6 a.m. Mr. Martin went first to the rectory next door to check the Mass schedule, then unlocked the cathedral’s east side door and the three front doors. In his statement to police later that day, he said he turned on all the electric lights for the upper cathedral, including the Nativity scene.
Mr. Martin said he prepared materials in the sacristy for the 7 a.m. Mass. He lit two altar candles and made sure the match was extinguished. He was about to go downstairs to open another door when he smelled smoke. It was about 6:20 a.m.
Downstairs, at about the same time, Mr. Macken was locking the boiler room behind him and leaving the cathedral to go to St. Joseph School (now Cathedral Green affordable housing) near the northeast corner of the cathedral. He opened the valves at the school, which was heated by the cathedral’s boiler. As he walked back through the lower cathedral, he noticed the lights were on upstairs and correctly guessed that Mr. Martin had arrived. Mr. Macken returned to the boiler room, apparently unaware of any danger.
Shortly before 7 a.m., Father Francis O’Neill – coincidentally the chaplain of the Hartford Fire Department – arrived and was preparing to celebrate the Mass from the main altar. He also smelled smoke and thought it was wood smoke. Mr. Martin thought it was oil smoke. Mr. Martin looked in several places in the upper and lower cathedral but could see no smoke.
As Mass got under way, a Mrs. Frances Devine “noticed smoke seeping through the east side of the cathedral,” according to The Catholic Transcript of Jan. 3, 1957. (East was to her right as she faced the altar.) After Mass, Mrs. Devine brought this to the attention of Deputy Fire Chief James P. McSweegan, a regular attendee at morning Mass. Chief McSweegan hurried to the sacristy to tell Father O’Neill. “I think, Father, it’s coming from the basement,” he said.
Mr. LaRose recalled, “He [McSweegan] smelled it; quite a few parishioners smelled it. They say it probably was smoldering for hours. Dust. Dust burns. People don’t realize that. Dust burns, and it was in the walls, all over.”
Mr. Martin went to the basement and called out to Mr. Macken that he smelled smoke. “I think there is something burning upstairs,” Mr. Martin said.
“No fire down here,” Mr. Macken said. In fact, he told police later that he did not “hear anything or smell smoke” until after firemen arrived. Mr. LaRose said in his 2010 interview that when he was helping other firemen inside the cathedral, he did not smell smoke either. “It was in the walls, and of course the smoke goes up,” he said. “On the outside you can smell it. They probably could smell more smoke [outside] than we could inside.”
In the basement, according to Mr. Martin’s statement to Hartford police, Chief McSweegan looked at the ceiling and said, “There is a fire there.”
On Chief McSweegan’s order, Mr. Macken pulled alarm box 621P at the rear of the rectory at 7:33 a.m. Someone also telephoned in an alarm from the rectory at about the same time, several accounts say. Mr. Macken returned to the sacristy and then went downstairs to shut off the boiler. When he came back to the sacristy, firemen had arrived.
The Transcript account said, “Chief McSweegan continued to search the basement attempting to locate the source of the fire while Father O’Neill and Rev. Allen E. Carter carried the Blessed Sacrament to the rectory.” Father Carter was from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Washington, Conn.
The Blessed Sacrament was later relocated to a vault in the chancery.
Five fire companies responded immediately to the first alarm, department records show. Many men (perhaps from Company 5 a block away) arrived within two minutes, according to Mr. Martin’s statement. They detected heat and smoke but no flame. They began pumping water from thousands of feet of hose throughout the structure, concentrating at first on the lower cathedral.
A second alarm was pulled at 7:44 a.m., according to the fire marshal’s copy of a police case card recently provided to the Transcript by the Hartford Fire Department. Mr. LaRose was among the men responding to the second alarm. “By the time we got there, now we could see the smoke outside. We knew, as much as we could know, that it was going to be something,” he said.
But so far, only smoke could be seen; the fire could only be heard as an ominous crackle. Firemen magazine reported in “Hartford Church Fires” in its Feb. 1957 issue that the unseen fire progressed rapidly “through the nonfirestopped wall and ceiling channels and other concealed spaces to the attic above the rotunda.”
A third alarm was pulled at 8:18 a.m., according to the case card. This brought in off-duty firemen and companies from nearby towns.
Along Farmington Avenue in front and Asylum Avenue in back, hoses resembled giant serpents. Firefighters atop tall ladders deluged the massive cathedral with high-pressure jets of water. Icicles quickly formed on tree branches. Firefighters in the lower cathedral waded in rising water from two-and-one-half-inch hoses fed by four nearby hydrants. Water overflowed from the cathedral and formed a lake. Hundreds of people looked on in horror from the steps of the Aetna Life Insurance building across Farmington Avenue.
At about 9:40 a.m., flames began to erupt here and there. In back of the cathedral, according to an eyewitness account recorded in a 1986 newsletter of the Hartford Fire Department, Archbishop Henry J. O’Brien had tears in his eyes as he said to Father O’Neill, “They’ll never save it now.”
Just then, at about 10:43 a.m., the ceiling over the main altar collapsed. Company 3 ladder man Benjamin A. Laury recalled in the 1986 newsletter that he and several other firefighters were on the roof over the sacristy at the time and were immediately ordered to get off and leave all tools behind. He and the other men scrambled down a ladder moments before “the whole roof just sort of blew open. The slate shingles that were on the roof just went flying up in the air, like so much cardboard.”
Mr. LaRose said, “If somebody hadn’t thought of it, that this was a dangerous place to be, that whole company would have been lost.”
Newspaper reports the next day said the collapse came only “a minute or so” after firefighters descended from the roof.
Photographs of those firemen on the roof show small pockets of flame, but now it would make its presence known in no uncertain terms. “Almost immediately” after the roof collapsed, Firemen magazine reported, “there was a violent burst of flame which raced along the entire upper interior structure and undivided dusty attic spaces. It completely involved the roof framing and practically exploded into the twin towers at the front of the church.”
“We were the second company to arrive,” said the late Oliver Therrien, a driver and pump operator at Company 11 on Sisson Avenue. Mr. Therrien, 96 years old when the Transcript interviewed him in February 2016, said he was stationed inside one of the spires. Despite wearing masks, the men couldn’t breathe, so he asked one of the deputy chiefs if he could break one of the large, expensive stained glass windows.
When he broke it, Chief Henry G. Thomas shouted, “Who broke the window?”
The deputy chief yelled back, “I told him to break it.”
“Okay,” Chief Thomas said.
Asked if he felt bad about having to break it, Mr. Therrien told the Transcript, “I didn’t think about it; I just wanted air.”
When the fire broke out of the walls, “Whoosh! Everything was black,” he said. “Boy, it was hot. That was it.”
In the commotion, he was pushed against a metal railing on the stairway and broke two ribs. He continued fighting the fire until he was relieved hours later.
Fire Chief Thomas was quoted the next day as saying, “When the flames broke through, we lost her.” From that point on, the firefighters concentrated on preventing the fire from spreading to nearby buildings, including the rectory, chancery, school and motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy.
By early afternoon on Dec. 31, only the walls and the cathedral’s two towers remained standing. Gold crosses had melted, most of the 72 stained glass windows had shattered in the heat, $100,000 worth of gold leaf on the rotunda was lost, and the Hartford-built Austin organ had come crashing down, according to Connecticut Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival, by Ellsworth Grant (Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2006).
The cathedral’s 10 massive bells, between 1,800 and 3,800 pounds each, were discovered in the rubble a month after the fire. All were badly damaged from their 200-foot drop from the tower, the Transcript reported on Jan. 30, 1957.
In all, 228 men fought the fire over the course of the long day, fire department records show. Msgr. William J. Collins, then-rector of the cathedral, placed the loss at about $5 million. More than 30 fire and police personnel were injured.
Arson was almost immediately suspected, because barely 31 hours earlier, St. Patrick Catholic Church on Church Street had been destroyed in a fire. Several suspects were questioned, but arson was never proved in either case.
The cathedral, designed by noted architect Patrick C. Keely, had taken more than 15 years to build and was consecrated in 1892. The windows were from Innsbruck, Germany. The marble altar was three stories high. The bishop’s chair was ornately carved oak. Among the few items saved were gold chalices, crucifixes, cassocks and other articles that priests and firemen carried out. A few cracked stained-glass windows from the lower cathedral were salvaged and are now in the chapel at the Office of Radio and Television in Prospect, according to ORTV director Father John Gatzak.
The day after the fire, the Feast of the Circumcision (as Jan. 1 was then observed), Mass was celebrated at the State Armory and at the Allyn Theater. It was the first day of a new year – and a new era. Archbishop O’Brien immediately started a rebuilding fund, and ground was broken for a new Cathedral of St. Joseph on Sept. 8, 1958.
(Note: The early-morning sequence of events in this account has been reconstructed from fire department records, statements given to police that day and from newspaper accounts. Special thanks to Captain Ron Chance of the Hartford Fire Department and Maria Medina, former archivist for the Hartford Archdiocese, for research assistance.)