May 27, 1875
The Precious Blood Church Fire Tragedy
The Sorrow of Lost Lives
in an Unmarked Mass Grave
Precious Blood Cemetery, gravesite of Rev. Andre B. Dufresne. Click here to see closer view of inscription, use "Back" button on your browser to return to this page.
Pictured left is the Memorial which marks the grave of Rev. Andre B. Dufresne, who died on May 14, 1887 and is currently located in Precious Blood Cemetery, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Prior to the closing of Precious Blood Church in Holyoke in 1989, the gravesite of Fr. Dufresne and this memorial were situated on the church grounds in Holyoke (somewhat visible next to the stairs in this image, use your browser "back" button to return here.)
Fr. Dufresne was the pastor of Precious Blood Church in 1875, when a major tragedy struck the congregation in the form of a fire on May 27th. This fire not only destroyed the church building completely, but took with it more than 75 people who perished directly in the fire or as a result of injuries sustained in the fire.
Occurring on Corpus Christi, a religious feast day, the fire was devastating and made major headlines both locally and nationally. Three columns on the front page of the New York Times was devoted to the fire and the story was followed for several days thereafter. The Daily Graphic, Harper's Weekly, and Frank Leslie's Illustrated, also New York City papers, dispatched artists to Holyoke and captured a sense of the atmosphere both visually and emotionally through published sketches. The fire was referred to frequently in terms of instituting later changes in building codes and requirements promoting safety, and was referred to in the July 1875 issue of Manufacturer and Builder, in an article entitled "Necessary Precautions Against Being Killed in Church."
Yet there are elements of this incredible event that still beg examination. One hundred and twenty-five years after this disaster it has, in many respects, become no more than a faint memory. In Precious Blood Cemetery, South Hadley, where the mass gravesite for the Precious Blood fire victims exists, no markers nor memorial can be found for them — despite newspaper accounts at the time indicating this was the intent. Initial research has provided somewhat sensational — albeit justifiable — reports of the fire with questionable validity regarding the victims, their names, and ultimate resting places that have been, at best, difficult to confirm. This has provoked more intensive research by indivuduals such as Art Corbiel, who's accurate and well-researched article appears here.
There have been only scant references to the fire in various later sources, often with some misinformation, such as the Holyoke Daily Transcript's Thirtieth Anniversary Publication (1912) which makes the briefest reference to the fire in discussing the history of Precious Blood. The paper seems to provide well-deserved praise to the fire department for their rescue efforts more than memorializing the human lives lost. M.A. Ryan, in Charles Warner's Picturesque Hampden (1892), offers a more dramatic look at the fire, though again, it is not without error. While one might expect to find in the local papers at least some minor passing tribute at various times, such as the 25th or 75th anniversary, there is little to be found in these or other years in the Holyoke Daily Transcript.
One cannot help but contemplate nationality and minority status during this time not only in the failure to further memorialize this tragedy, but to some extent permit it to be forgotten. The church was French Catholic as were those who lost their lives. The struggle for newer immigrant groups in this country is always difficult, particularly when there are language differences, and surely this is a major contributing factor. In fact, because of unfamiliarity with French, the deaths reported in the news were laden with errors and had extreme variations. Furthermore, research suggests there was some discrimination toward the poor from within the church itself.
Ella Merkel DiCarlo in her book Holyoke-Chicopee, A Perspective (Transcript-Telegram, Holyoke, Mass., 1982) notes that in 1874 there were about 2,500 French Canadians in Holyoke. DiCarlo writes of Father Dufresne:
"It was Father Dufresne's tenacity which had pulled the French together to put up their magnificent church but now it was his authoritarianism which divided them.
A defrocked priest came to town and Dufresne forbad any of his parishioners to hear him. He accused the owner of a livery business of ignoring him and wouldn't perform funeral if his hacks were used.
The man went to court and won his case, the judge saying the priest was ruining the man's business.
Letters to the editor accused the priest of other devisive action such as catering to the rich. When they were married, said one letter, it was upstairs for $20-$30 while the poor were married in the basement at $10-$20.
Also, since pews rented at $5 a quarter, many poor had to stand. It was felt Father Dufresne, who received $600 a year and owned much property, was wealthier than most parishioners, many of whom could not afford the $1 a month tithe. While some, of course, supported Dufresne, the controversy tore his church apart."
Holyoke has noted in its various ethnic histories cultural prejudice exemplified by such actions as prospective employers posting signs reading "No Irish Need Apply" in their windows. Doubtless, the French experienced similar treatment and had the additional language barrier to deal with. While economic constraints within a new immigrant group might provide consideration for fees associated with erecting a memorial, one must be reminded that in 1878, three years after the fire, the substantial new brick church was completed and dedicated — a large financial investment largely falling upon the shoulders of parishioners. While we may never fully understand the reasons this tragedy had been all but forgotten, one cannot help but strongly feel that in the year 2001 — 126 years after the fact — these fire victims and their descendants deserve a marker in the cemetery, with their names on it, as was the original intent.
Included in these pages are articles from the New York Times, Springfield Republican, the Boston Daily Globe, The Daily Graphic, (along with a multitude of images) reporting on the Precious Blood Fire. Highly recommended is to begin reading about this event with Mr. Art Corbiel's excellent (and most historically accurate) article. Mr. Corbiel, who has granted permission to print his comprehensive article on the fire within these pages, deserves special thanks as this work represents extensive research on his part (which, by the way, he continues to pursue).
Thanks also to Paul Graves of the Holyoke Public Library as well as James R. Smith and Gideon T. Miles, who provided assistance in collecting material, and the New York Public Library for maintaining an excellent microfilm collection.