BOSTON, Massachusetts — For Fall River resident Roland Masse, the images of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning Monday brought immediate flashbacks to an eerily similar church inferno he escaped decades ago.
The fire at the Notre Dame de Lourdes in Fall River happened May 11, 1982, as the church, which was designed to echo the Parisian landmark and served the city’s once sizeable French-Canadian community, had been undergoing a $1 million renovation.
Workers soldering on the roof accidentally ignited dry timbers and the fire spread rapidly, Masse, the church’s sexton at the time, recalled Tuesday. Within an hour, both of the church’s more than 200-foot bell towers were engulfed in flames.
Workers and a class of grade school students practicing for their First Communion ceremony were evacuated as firefighters quickly realized they were unable to salvage the structure, Masse said.
“I was reliving the whole thing. It was just like it happened to us,” said the 73-year-old of the Paris fire, which officials have said was likely related to a $6.8 million renovation project on the building’s roof. “A big stone church set fire by outside work, the high winds, everything. I can’t believe it. It’s heartbreaking. I know what we went through, and it was a great loss. You just shake your head.”
The Fall River fire didn’t just level the church. The gusty conditions quickly swept the flames into the neighborhood.
Some 27 homes and businesses across five city blocks were damaged, according to news reports at the time. Residents fled with what belongings they could grab. City streets were shut down and nearby highways were gridlocked. Then-Gov. Edward King called in the National Guard to keep order.
At least 100 families were displaced, but only one minor injury to a firefighter was reported. The city estimated the damage in the tens of millions of dollars, according to news reports.
“As devastating as this fire was it could have been so much worse if not for the herculean efforts of your Fall River Firefighters and some courageous decisions made by then Chief Louis Shea,” the Fall River firefighters’ union wrote in a series of tweets Monday recalling the blaze.
As devastating as this fire was it could have been so much worse if not for the herculean efforts of your Fall River Firefighters and some courageous decisions made by then Chief Louis Shea. pic.twitter.com/5gx9TD0dNq
— Fall RiverFire L1314 (@IAFF1314) April 16, 2019
Masse said firefighters formed a fire line that largely prevented the flames from spreading throughout the neighborhood of wooden, three-decker multi-family homes.
But, in the end, all that remained of the majestic church was a granite shell.
The bell towers, most of the ornate stained glass windows and treasured artwork, such as a 77-foot-by-55-foot ceiling painting by Italian artist Ludovico Cremonini called “The Last Judgment,” were lost.
“It took 16 years to build and 15 minutes to burn,” Father Normand Grenier, the church’s assistant pastor, lamented in an interview at the time.
It was actually the second time tragedy had struck the church. The original wood structure, built in 1891, was destroyed in a fire in 1893.
After the 1982 blaze, the church was rebuilt again, but in a more subdued, brick style. It reopened in 1986, but merged with another parish in 2012 as attendance dwindled.
Almost $3 million in debt, the parish was finally shuttered last year. The church’s final Mass was celebrated Aug. 5, and the building now sits vacant.