At least 100 firefighters from Lawrence and towns and villages around the area spent hours Monday night battling a nagging four-alarm fire in the Corpus Christi Parish Rectory of Holy Rosary Church at 35 Essex Street in Lawrence .
Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said firefighters managed to keep the fire from blowing up from the parsonage into two hallways that led to the church.
“Even though it was a serious fire, we saved the church,” he said. “It was a great stop, great.”
The parish priest, the Reverend Francis Mawn, was the sole occupant of the rectory and he escaped unscathed. No other injuries have been reported, Moriarty said.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation on Tuesday.
The rectory building was charred with a giant black hole through the roof. The church building has suffered water damage and will need repairs. But Moriarty said he believed “the church building will still be there.”
“I am very impressed. They worked so hard… a very difficult and fierce battle,” said Moriarty.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze with a combination of “hitting it from above” ladder hoses and hand lines. The fire broke out around 6:20 p.m. and then resumed just over an hour later, with firefighters ready to shoot it down each time, Moriarty said.
The heavy fire in the presbytery was visible when firefighters first arrived on Monday evening. Moriarty said they had “set off four alarms” by bringing in aid teams from a large contingent from across the region.
“We needed all the help we could get,” Moriarty said.
Access to the rectory was limited to two sides: Common and Essex streets. Moriarty noted that a “really good water” supply to fight the blaze was available downtown.
“The difficulty with this fire was access. The alley was all icy behind St. Alfio’s,” he said, referring to the adjacent St. Alfio Society building.
The power lines leading to the presbytery and the church are underground. So when National Grid was asked to shut off the power, the whole block shut down, Moriarty said.
“It wasn’t just like pulling a circuit breaker on a telephone pole,” he explained.
Mawn, the parish priest for 14 years, said he was watching television in his bedroom on Monday evening when the fire alarm went off. He said he saw smoke then and immediately left the building.
The fire damage to the rectory is “unfortunate”, but Mawn was grateful that the church was spared significant damage.
“Thank goodness it didn’t affect the church,” he said, noting the building’s “magnificent stained glass and pipe organ”.
Masses will be held at the Parish Center at 34 Common Street following the fire. He noted that the center is close to the church although Masses “will not be so elegant” in the center.
The entire parish property, which includes the rectory and church, measures 20,925 square feet and is valued at $ 2.5 million, said the city’s chief assessor, Alexcy Vega.
Lawrence Firefighters were assisted by Service Firefighters from Andover, North Andover, Lowell, Haverhill, Methuen, Danvers, Dracut, Middleton, Salem, New Hampshire, Billerica, Reading and North Reading.
The Holy Rosary Church was founded by Italian immigrants in 1904. In the 1960s, it welcomed the first Cubans to arrive in Lawrence, and later other Hispanic communities, according to the church’s website.
In November 2004, the Archdiocese of Boston established Corpus Christi Parish by uniting the Holy Rosary and three other ethnic churches – Holy Trinity (Polish), St. Francis (Lithuanian) and Sts. Peter and Paul (Portuguese).
The church is the backbone of the annual Feast of the Three Saints in Lawrence and is beloved by many residents of the Merrimack Valley who have attended masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals and more.
Follow reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.