WATERTOWN — The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is years away from being rebuilt following a tragic fire that struck in April.
In July, Time magazine reported in a story by Vivienne Walt, “The cause of the blaze is still unknown, yet what it exposed is clear — the fragility of our most cherished buildings and the wistful attachment we hold to the spaces within their walls.”
The Notre Dame fire caused the producers of the Watertown Daily Times history podcast “Second Look” to recall a monumental church fire in Watertown that struck 50 years ago.
The Our Lady of Sacred Heart Parish was formed in 1857 in the city to serve a French-speaking congregation. In 1969, the parish church on the north side of the city was the third church to serve the congregation.
On the night of Feb. 13, 1969, the 61-year-old Our lady of Sacred Heart Church, 322 W. Lynde St., was destroyed by the fire that sprayed flying embers over five adjacent streets.
Sandra Faylo, longtime parishioner and current business manager at Sacred Heart, recalled she was at Howards Restaurant (now Shulers) on Mill Street when she found out about the fire.
“We saw the smoke,” she said on Thursday. “When we found out what was going on, we were devastated. We drove as close as we could, but the police and fire trucks wouldn’t let anybody in and we knew we would only be in the way. But you could see the smoke for miles.”
Despite temperatures that hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit, about 100 firefighters finally brought the church fire under control.
But the next morning, only smoldering ruins remained. Stone walls had a layer of ice. The only other thing still standing was the 100-foot high bell tower.
The Watertown Daily Times reported the fire was discovered at 11:10 p.m. Feb. 13 by 10th ward supervisor Robert H. Austin as he was leaving the North Side Improvement League. Firefighters arrived within 5 minutes, but “so dense was the smoke emanating from the church that it mushroomed over a one-half block sector in all directions.”
The core of the fire seemed to be in the basement and it was later determined that that is where is started. When flames broke through the roof of the church, firefighters were recalled from the basement.
Mary M. Henry, 70, another longtime parishioner, is a life resident of Davidson Street and her family has been very active in the church over the years.
“It was a pretty tragic thing for the north side,” she said. “I was brought up in that church since I was born. That was our second home. And then it was gone.”
The church isn’t far from her home.
“I stood on Lynde Street and the whole thing was engulfed,” she said. “I put a wet cloth on my face and was able to walk down by the fire. You could see all through the church. It was falling apart. It was horrible.”
Collapse of the roof began at 1 a.m. Feb. 14. It fell within the hour. Only a few sacred vessels were saved from the burning building. The pastor at the time was the Rev. Benoit C. Dostie.
“They had to hold Father Dostie back from going in trying to save things,” Mrs. Faylo said. “He was a mess.”
In December of 1970, as a new church was being built, the Rev. Dostie recalled his feelings when he saw the roof collapse:
“I threw back my arms and said, ‘That’s done. It’s finished,’” the pastor, a native of Quebec City, told the Times.
Two days after the fire, an editorial in the Watertown Daily Times read, “The destruction of Sacred Heart Church by fire is the most distressing event in Watertown in many years.”
Days after the fire, the church congregation, headed by the Rev. Dostie, began a funding campaign to build a new structure at the same site.
The church hosted Masses in the gymnasium at Sacred Heart School.
“I had a cousin who was married in the gymnasium,” Mrs. Henry said.
A combination of insurance money and a $300,000 fundraising drive resulted in the construction of a new church. Fundraising efforts included a parish festival.
“It has continued every year since then to bring together parishioners in a spirit of friendship and cooperation for one of the parish’s most important yearly events,” according to a history post on the church’s website.
Nearly 2,000 people attended the dedication of the new church on Nov. 7, 1971.
“We had an open house to take people through the church to explain why our church was different than the Gothic churches we couldn’t afford to build,” Mrs. Henry said.
A feature of the “new” church is the floor, which slopes down to the altar as the roof slopes upward. The Rev. Dostie said, “The church opens as you enter — like opening your heart.”
There was no definite determination for the cause of the fire, only that it started near the stage in the basement about at the center of the building.
In August, the Watertown City Fire department launched an effort to make sure that if another huge fire strikes a city church, religious and historic artifacts would be considered during firefighting efforts.
The Rev. Leon I. VanWie a chaplain with the city’s fire department, said what happened to Notre-Dame rekindled an awareness that local houses of worship contain all kinds of religious and historic artifacts that could potentially be lost — or saved — during a fire.
Working with the fire department, he and the Rev. Canon Samuel P. Lundy, another fire department chaplain, are trying to do something about it in case a Notre-Dame tragedy hits one of our community’s many places of worship again.
“There’s nothing as important as Notre-Dame, but it’s important to us,” the Rev. Lundy said.
City Fire Chief Dale C. Herman commissioned them to conduct surveys of city churches that will help the city’s fire department gain access to those items and find a way to rescue them during a fire.
To hear more about what happened when the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church was destroyed by fire, listen to Second Look podcast.