Fire at Precious Blood
by Art Corbiel
Prior to 1869, French-Canadian Roman Catholics in Holyoke worshiped at St. Jerome's Catholic Church, a parish that also served the spiritual needs of the Irish Catholic population in that city. In 1869, approaching nearly 1,000 in number, the French-Canadians were allowed to establish their own parish in South Holyoke, Precious Blood. The Rev. Andre B. Dufresne from St. Hyacinth, Canada, became its first pastor. The parish was located in an area that contained three paper mills; three woolen mills, two cotton mills, one machine shop, one thread mill, one gingham mill, two wire mills, and a number of smaller manufacturing establishments.
Only a Month
The most immediate requirement of the new parish was a church that would serve the spiritual needs of the congregation. Acting quickly, the congregation began construction on the new church on December 1, 1869. It took only one month to build, and was dedicated on January 1, 1870. The building had no basement and was made of pine. It measured 46 feet wide and 96 feet long, that included the rectory which was attached. The church had an upper gallery spanning the east, north, and west sides of the building, which seated a maximum of 400 worshippers. The seating capacity of the church totaled 800 parishioners.
The church had three front entrances. The east entrance doorway measured 44 inches wide, the center entrance was 6 feet wide, and the west entrance was 44 inches wide. The parishioners who wished to sit in the gallery had to use the east entrance, walk up a stairway 4 feet wide parallel to the front of the building, take a left turn then walk up a few stairs that led to the gallery.
The new church was considered a temporary building. The congregation had plans for the construction of a permanent church next to the existing wooden one in order to accommodate the rapidly growing congregation that numbered between 2,000 and 2,500 by 1875. However, construction of the new building had been slowed due to the poor economic conditions affecting the country at that time. By 1875, only the basement of the new church was partially completed.
Out of Control
Corpus Christi, a religious feast in the Roman Catholic Church, commemorated the institution of the Holy Eucharist as a sacrament. Traditionally, it was celebrated on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, so it was that on a mild spring Thursday evening, May 27, 1875, between 600 and 700 parishioners of the Precious Blood parish gathered at the church for a vesper service to mark the occasion.
The service began at 7:30 p.m. and lasted about 20 minutes. It was nearly concluded when a breeze lifted the lace curtain surrounding the statue of the Blessed Virgin on the east side of the church into a lighted candle causing the bottom of the curtain to ignite. A young woman attempted to put out the flame with her fan, but was unsuccessful. The fire quickly intensified and raced up the eastern wall and into the eastern gallery. Despite the urging of Fr. Dufrense to remain calm, panic set in as people in the balconies raced to the stairway that they hoped would lead them to safety.
Worshippers on the ground floor were able to exit the flaming church through the center doors, as well as the read of the church. People in the western gallery were able to jump out the windows onto the scaffolding outside that surrounded the new brick church under construction, or onto the ground, which was soft and not nearly as far below as the ground on the eastern side of the building.
The unfortunate men and women in the eastern gallery had a more difficult task escaping the raging fire. It was nearly impossible to survive a jump out of the windows due to the distances of the fall. The only possible escape was to navigate the winding narrow stairway, 44 inches wide, which exited through the east entrance of the church. It was on this stairway that the unfortunate men and women, some of them on fire, fell and tripped over each other blocking escape for the people behind them.
Those who managed to overcome this obstacle had to compete with others coming from the main floor for access to the east door, which was also 44 inches wide. This exit eventually became blocked by a mass of burning and injured parishioners who were screaming for help in escaping the inferno.
The fire department arrived very quickly after the fire started and began pulling people, both dead and alive from the blocked doorway. They grabbed their hoses and sprayed water on the people blocking the exit to the church in an attempt to extinguish the flames, save the people they could, and protect the firemen as they performed their grim task. One of these courageous firemen, John J. Lynch, later became the fire chief of Holyoke. It was the quick and heroic actions of the firemen that prevented the disaster from becoming worse than it was. However, despite their valiant efforts, at least 74 people laid dead or dying, 55 of them females. The fire was extinguished in 20 minutes, but not before it had destroyed completely the church and the rectory.
A City Mobilized
Led by Mayor William B. C. Pearsons and Almoner W. A. Judd, the City of Holyoke mobilized to aid the injured and comfort the relatives of the dead. Drs. Smith, Woods, Tuttle, Carpenter, and O'Connor arrived on the scene to help the injured and make comfortable the dying. Two priests from St. Jerome, Frs. McManus and Cronin, assisted Fr. Dufresne to give whatever spiritual aid and comfort they could offer. The Sisters of Charity administered to the injured and later sought donations of food, clothing and money for the afflicted families. Hack drivers contributed their services without remuneration, taking families looking for their loved ones to various locations where the dead or dying had been brought, and driving grief-stricken relatives back to their apartments. Almoner Judd sought donations of cotton or silk cloth to use as bandages for the inured.
Initially the bodies were taken to various nearly locations including "Prew's" building, Monat's store, and the New York Mills boarding house. Finally, all the bodies were collected and taken to the basement of the Park Street School, which served as a morgue. Meanwhile, frantic parents were looking for their children, wives for their husbands, husbands for their wives, all hoping beyond hope that somehow their loved ones had escaped unharmed.
The grim task of identifying the dead took place at the Park Street School. Many of the victims were so badly burned that identification could only be made by jewelry that might have been worn; by a pair of shoes recognized by a loved one; or a piece of clothing recognized by a parent.
Language barriers hampered an accurate and speedy accounting of the dead. In many cases, different English translations of a French name resulted in the mistaken idea that two different people had died. For example, Philomene Grandchamp was initially identified as Philomene Longfield. The injured list still identified two victims as Longchamp. City officials sought the assistance of a French-speaking translator to try to get an accurate list. Despite these efforts, the "official" names and newspaper listing of the dead do not agree. Mr. Boulanger and Mrs. and Mrs. Lepreaux, among others, appear in newspaper accounts as being victims of the fire, but do not appear in "official" records.
Day of Mourning
A proclamation by May Pearsons urging the mills and stores to close on the day of the funeral, May 29, 1875, was met with general acceptance by the community. This allowed friends and neighbors of the victims to attend the funeral if they so wished.
The funeral Mass was held in the unfinished basement of the brick church that was under construction next to the old wooden one. A total of 48 caskets were placed on a platform surrounded by the St. Jean Baptiste and Ancient Order of Hibernians societies acting as honor guards. Approximately 2,500 people filled the church for the Mass, with more standing outside.
The Rev. L. G. Grenier of Springfield assisted by Rev. L. B. Primeau of Worcester officiated at the Mass along with Fr. Dufresne. After the one-hour Mass, Fr. Gagner delivered an address in French and Fr. Primeau in English, thanking the Holyoke community for their assistance and the generosity they exhibited in response to the tragedy.
The funeral procession from the church consisted of six hearses and 21 business and truck wagons containing the bodies and 105 carriages. It was almost one mile in length and took about 25 minutes to pass any one point. The funeral took a circuitous route through Holyoke, crossing the South Hadley Falls Bridge, and led ultimately to the Precious Blood Cemetery located in South Hadley Falls. At the cemetery, the victims were buried in a common grave. Today, the tombstone of Fr. Dufresne, who died on May 14, 1887, marks this gravesite. Fr. Dufresen had been buried initially on the grounds of the site of the new church which was complete on June 3, 1878. Prior to the closing of the church in 1989, Fr. Dufresne's body and monument were brought to the common gravesite of the victims.
The ramifications of the fire and resulting deaths were felt throughout Holyoke. The Farr Alpaca Mill lost seven operatives and was obliged to shut down for two days on account of all the mourning and confusion that ensued. The Hampden Mills gave needed financial aid to the survivors of the victims. Fifty children, who had either been injured or had friends burned at the fire, were absent from the Park Street School on Monday morning. The Transcript, the local weekly paper, published extras both in English and French to ensure the story could be read by all segments of the Holyoke community.
There was a coroner's inquest to determine the cause of the deaths in the fire. After deliberations, no one person was charged or found guilty of the deaths and injuries of the victims. However, the jury did condemn "the almost criminal carelessness shown in the construction of the galleries and the means of egress therefrom." In the 1876 report to the Holyoke mayor and City Council, the chief fire engineer strongly recommended that "an ordinance compelling all owners of public buildings and places of worship to have doors open outward." This statement implies that the doors of the church did not open outward and may have contributed to the loss of lives.
The loss of so many lives at Precious Blood Church in Holyoke on Mary 27, 1875, made it one of the most devastating church fires of the 19th century. Only one other was more tragic, the church fire of December 8, 1864 in Santiago, Chile, which occurred during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception when over 2,000 people lost their lives. However, for many French-Canadian families in New England, the fire at Precious Blood Church lives on as a sad but inescapable chapter in their family histories.
A Long List
Following is a list of the known dead and injured as reported by the Transcript on June 2, 1875. The (D) on the injured list indicates the person died of injuries suffered in the fire.