A little more than 100 years ago, the headlines of the Dec. 17, 1923, edition of the Haverhill Evening Gazette said it all: “St. Joseph’s Church Destroyed By Fire.” No, this was not the St. Joseph’s Church (All Saints) that we all know today. It was the first French Catholic church, and it stood on the corner of Locust Street and Grand Avenue. That site today is the parking lot for Holy Apostles Church.
In 1876, Rev. Father Casgrain of Fall River was instructed by the archbishop to go to Haverhill and erect a church for the people who spoke French. Haverhill’s shops and mills had brought a large number of Irish people and French Canadians to the city. They attended worship services at St. James Church, but the French longed for a church of their own where the word of God could be explained to them in their native language. Father Casgrain was warmly received in Haverhill, and his offer to build a church for the city’s French-speaking population was enthusiastically accepted.
The church was completed in 1877 and dedicated by Archbishop Williams, Bishop de Goesbriand, of Burlington, Vermont, and Bishop La Fleche of Canada. Attracted by the job opportunities here, more French Canadians came to the city as the years passed, taxing the church building to its utmost capacity.
In 1885, the church was enlarged, and as part of the expansion, the original wooden structure was covered with a layer of brick. Also, a tower was built with a large, wooden steeple that rivaled the one on the nearby St. James church. Classrooms were added to the basement of the church for the French-speaking children who struggled in the schools where lessons were taught in English.
Fire broke out in the church shortly after 2 a.m. on Monday, December 17, 1923, and destroyed the building. Every piece of Haverhill’s firefighting equipment was deployed to the scene, and a general alarm was sounded when it was feared that the thickly congested neighborhood all the way to Emerson Street was doomed. Firefighters from Lawrence, West Newbury, and Newburyport responded and were tasked with keeping the fire from spreading.
When the roof and steeple of the church collapsed, sparks and burning embers shot high into the air and were carried by the wind onto the roofs of nearby buildings. Sparks fell thickly as far east of the fire as Pecker Street and as far south as Washington Square. Several small fires broke out on rooftops but were quickly extinguished by firefighters from the out-of-town departments. Firefighters wet down the wooden tenement buildings closest to the fire to keep it from spreading.
The origin of the blaze was never determined. At first it was thought to have been caused by a candle left burning on the altar after the Sunday evening service. The Reverend Father Perennes, pastor of the church, was the first to enter the building after the fire was discovered. He discounted this report, saying the fire was initially confined to the vestry, which was located several feet from the altar. He also said that all the candles were extinguished after the evening mass.
Discovering his church was in flames, Father Perennes rushed into the burning building in an attempt to save the host and other valuable articles from the altar tabernacle. Fighting the intense heat and smoke, he was able to save a gold chalice and a few other items. On the verge of collapsing, he entered the building a second time. He was blindly groping his way toward the altar before he was apprehended by a local policeman, who heroically entered the burning building and pulled the priest to safety.
Within five hours, the fire was under control. The towering brick walls stood over a mass of smoldering embers, twisted beams, and broken statues strewn across the area of the altar. The brick walls that were added when the church was expanded in 1885 had prevented the fire from spreading to the adjoining buildings.
The damage was estimated at $100,000, about $1.75 million in today’s dollars, and was covered by insurance. If nothing else, the destruction of the church hastened the decision to move ahead with plans for building a new church at the corner of Broadway and Blaisdell Street. Those plans had been under discussion for 10 years.