I had heard about the fire when I was growing up. Each winter the oldtimers would remind folks of the Fire of 1904. As a kid I really didn't listen, how sorry I am now. Later as I became more interested in St. Pat's story, I found that the Sisters of Notre Dame kept a Journal of daily events in the convent. I was fortunate to be able to sit with the original Journal and read the Sister's handwritten account. During the entire fire the nuns knelt outside the firedoor between the church and the convent with the arms outstretched praying for intercession. The account later described the tears of the priest and people viewing the damge.
The rectory got a phone call a few years ago of someone asking to meet me. A certain individual had some items of historical significance that he wanted me to see. The family had been long time parishioners. The individual's family was actually present at the time of the fire and picked up some souvenirs from the church. He thought it was time for them to come home. Today they are part of the Parish Archives. One is a piece of marble that was the base of a statue. I'm pretty sure by matching the stone it was the base of a statue of Saint Bridget or Columba. These 2 statutes once stood on each side of the altar. (During this coming year's Irish Cultural Week the images of the 2 saints will be restored to the church.)
You might think that such an occasion is random, but not so. Many of the items in the Archives have made their way back in such a way. I've also gotten phone calls from folks who invite me to see their treasures and then be told they cant part with them. I recently heard of some items being thrown in the trash since the children had no idea of their importance to our history. If you find yourself in a similar situation, give St Pat's Rectory a call- 978-459-0561.
The Grand Fires of 1904 – St. Patrick’s Catholic Church; Lowell, Massachusetts
On Monday, January 11, 1904, Sister Josephine, a teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Lowell, Massachusetts, awoke, rose from bed, and looked out her window at the pre-dawn stillness; it was just minutes after five o’clock in the morning. Only she saw smoke – and lots of it – billowing from St. Patrick’s Church. Sister Josephine rushed from her room and roused two other sisters. Together, the three Notre Dame teachers found the key for the fire alarm box on Fenwick Street, just outside the church’s main gate. Key in hand, the nuns rushed to the parochial residence, rapped at the door, and pulled the bell. Rev. John J. McHugh, in the midst of a week of sick calls, bolted awake, threw on his clothes, and answered the knocking at the door, ready for his next sick call.
A crowd began to gather outside the church as more and more of the neighbors, most parishioners themselves, saw the smoke. Mary Ann Saunders, the elderly sacristan of the church and another lifelong member, pushed through the bystanders and rushed toward the burning church. She made her way to the vestry windows on the Cross Street side, broke the glass, and climbed through. She found the vestments, and prepared as big a pile on the floor as her frail but determined frame would allow her to carry. The firemen arrived later to find her at her task, building a small mountain, and ordered her out of the building. She turned, looked at the men, and refused – still determined to save as many vestments as she could. The firemen were preparing to carry all 80 pounds of her out when another priest, Fr. Walsh, happened upon the scene. Both were doubtful that the firemen would save the sacred vestments that Mrs. Saunders had gathered on the floor of the vestry. Fr. Walsh mediated a compromise and the firemen escorted him and Mrs. Saunders from the building and helped them with the vestments. Apparently, Mrs. Saunders was quite convincing.
Other parishioners rushed through the chaos to save sacred and valuable items within the burning church. John Nugent, a member of the Holy Name Society, felt through the smoke and saved two large candlesticks that stood near the main altar. John J. Sullivan carried out several statues, vestments, and other articles. Professor Fred G. Bond, the director of the church choir, ran into the church at great peril to save the church’s collection of music from the choir gallery. The music, which had been brought from Ireland by the late Father Michael O’Brien, was priceless to the church. With the help of the firemen, Professor Bond took several bundles of music and covered others with protective blankets.
Chief Hosmer defended himself in the press as early as the following day, stating that many of the accounts circulating were false. When the fire was extinguished in the basement, he, and several of the priests, had thought the fire was under control when he sent the two companies of firemen home. As soon as he entered the church again, he found that the fire still raged in the three inches separating the wall and the plastering and that this had allowed the fire to work its way up from the basement into the church. Hosmer immediately called the dismissed companies back; they hadn’t gone far and were able to return quickly. Hosmer knew the gravity of the situation when he realized that the fire had progressed into the church’s main floor and he had rung the general alarm. Regarding the water tower, Homer stated that it could not have been used in the situation. Chief Edward F. Hosmer survived the hasty post-fire criticism and went on to serve the Lowell Fire Department for another nine years before he retired, with honor, on May 1, 1913 after 55 years of firefighting, 30 of which were spent leading Lowell’s fire department.