Cathedral Fire of 1956

Status: Upcoming

On Monday, December 31, 1956, a fire broke out in the basement of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph and quickly made its way up the back of the structure. The fire was discovered after the 7:00 AM Mass, and firefighters were quickly on the scene. At 10:45 AM, the fire broke through the roof of the sacristy at the rear of the building and then flashed across the whole of the roof. At that point, the Cathedral was lost, and firefighters shifted their focus to preventing the spread of the fire to other buildings.

Approximate Order of Events

As best as possible, this is a chronology of the Cathedral Fire. It’s based on reporting from the Hartford Courant.

December 30, 1956
Cathedral staff searched the church and locked the doors The search was conducted because of the fire at Saint Patrick’s and also because of fires at several other churches in the region
December 31, 1956
6:30 AM
Cathedral staff unlocked and opened the doors to the church This time would be noted as part of the investigation into the arson. Staff had locked the door the night before after inspecting the building, and this was the first time that anyone could have entered the cathedral without a key.
7:00 AM
Mass led by Francis S. O’Neill O’Neill was the chaplain for the Hartford Fire Department
Between 7:00 AM and 7:30 AM
Fire started in an area beneath and to the rear of the main altar
7:30 AM
Francis O’Neill and James McSweegan found the fire
Fire hoses were laid down
Early in Fire – During the Morning
Fire burned between the main floor and the ceiling of the basement
Only smoke was visible
A 20-foot section of the basement ceiling collapsed, injuring two firefighters John W. Covey and William E. Powers were taken to Hartford Hospital
The boilers in a low structure at the northwest corner of the cathedral were shut down The boilers would be under 8 feet of water by the end of the day, but at this point, shutting them off cut off heat to the rest of the cathedral campus, including the convent, rectory, chancery office, and two houses on Asylum Avenue
The entire cathedral campus was evacuated Heat wasn’t expected to be restored until January 1
8:45 AM
Salvation Army arrived with its Mobile Canteen Unit and 12 workers The unit set up three stations to distribute coffee and doughnuts to firefighters
Additional items – work gloves and dry socks – were also distributed, but it isn’t clear that they were distributed by this unit
Between 8:45 AM and 10:35 AM
A squad of police officers under the command of Francis Gunshanan began removing valuables from the Cathedral
Mary C. Kelly, cafeterias manager at Aetna, and her crew set up several coffee stations on Aetna’s grounds It’s not certain when they did this, but they distributed coffee and doughnuts (probably morning) and also sandwiches (probably noontime)
Fire burned through shafts toward the rear of the sacristy and upwards to a third-floor storeroom
Fire reached the large rotunda above the main altar
10:35 AM
The squad of police officers halted its effort to remove valuables from the Cathedral The Courant reported that they left the Cathedral for the last time 10 minutes before the ceiling above the main altar collapsed
Approximately 10:40 AM
A squad of firefighters under the command of Raymond Daly lowered two injured firefighters to the ground from the roof above the sacristy
10:44 AM
Raymond Daly reached the ground via ladder from the roof of the sacristy The Courant reported that Daly got to the ground the minute before the sacristy roof erupted in flames
10:45 AM
A large chunk of ceiling over the main altar collapsed
The sacristy roof erupted in flames
Flame appeared through the slate roof above the rotunda Although it’s all in roughly the same area at the back of the Cathedral, this separate event could have been what was elsewhere described as fire breaking through the roof of the apse
Fire flashed along the cathedral roof At this point, the Cathedral was considered lost by the Hartford Fire Department
Two groups of firefighters were inside the nave, and they immediately turned their hoses upward Firefighters could only hope to contain the flames at this point
Fire burst through the windows and the façade According to one account, the fire broke through the windows before it broke through the roof at the rear of the Cathedral
After 10:45 AM
Flames leapt 100 feet high
Flaming embers littered the front lawn of Aetna
Police forced thousands of spectators back to the front of the Aetna building
Firefighters trained their hoses on the roofs of the rectory and the convent The rectory was east of the cathedral, and the convent of the Sisters of Mercy was on the west
11:45 AM
A meeting to discuss the reconstruction of Saint Patrick’s Church took place Attending the meeting were Henry O’Brien, archbishop of the Hartford Archdiocese, and William J. Ennis, the city building inspector
Following the meeting, the attendees headed out to watch the progress of the fire
12:00 Noon
Michael J. Godfrey posted police officers at every major church and synagogue in Hartford Godfrey, the chief of police, did so at the request of Carleton Sharpe, the city manager, who in turn was responding to a request from Joseph Cronin, mayor, and Roger Ladd, a member of city council
Aetna cafeteria provided hot meals for anyone fighting the fire who could get away
Many of Aetna’s 3,000 employees were watching the fire from the north side windows This was at the “pinnacle” of the fire
Between 12:00 Noon and 3:30 PM
William Ennis conducted a visual inspection of the exterior of the building Ennis declared that there was no danger of the walls collapsing
3:10 PM
Aetna began releasing its employees floor by floor Considered an early release to start the New Year’s holiday, the decision was made in order to avoid the typical 4:30 PM release rush hour
3:30 PM
Only the stone masonry walls remained standing
4:00 PM
The last of the Aetna employees left the building
Henry G. Thomas spoke to reporters about the course of the fire
8:00 PM
The Aetna cafeteria closed 40 cafeteria workers and 7 other employees pitched in as volunteers to keep the cafeteria open this late
Repair work on the boilers began

The Fire

Initially, arson was suspected as the cause, but so far it appears that that was never proven.

The fire started between the ceiling of the basement and the floor of the nave above, and it worked its way toward the rear of the building. At the rear of the building, the fire traveled up a shaft until it finally reached an attic-like space above the rotunda. The ceiling was in this space was 15 feet in some spots, and this is where the battle against the fire was lost.

The fire itself didn’t become visible outside of the Cathedral until it broke through the roof at 10:45. Prior to that, only smoke had been visible, although it’s not entirely certain when smoke first became visible. There’s also some slight variations in accounts of how the fire broke through. One article says it broke through the roof above the sacristy, while another said it broke through at the apse – these would have been basically the same area of the Cathedral. But there are two different accounts as to what the fire did after it broke through the roof at the back of the Cathedral – either it flashed along the roof and then destroyed the windows, or it burst through the windows and then penetrated the roof. Although the outcome was the same, this difference would have been significant to the firefighters inside the nave. There, they were fighting the fire until part of the ceiling above the main altar collapsed, at which point they began work to contain the fire. If, however, the fire destroyed the windows first, then it must have rushed along the ceiling before it flashed along the roof, in which case the firefighters inside must have been in far greater danger.

According to Henry G. Thomas, the Hartford Fire chief, the fire spread rapidly because the cathedral had been constructed without fire stops. Worse, there were many large open shafts within the building that provided easy routes for the fire to the roof.

Lost and saved

The loss exceeded $5 million, according to William J. Collins, the cathedral rector. Insurance would provide $3 million to replace cathedral.
Stained glass windows valued at $275,000
Rotunda covered in gold leaf valued at $100,000
Organ valued at $100,000
An inlaid wood ceiling with wood trim from every country in the world
Wood carvings on the pews, the ceiling, and the wall decorations
Ornate plaster work

The police squad under Francis Gunshanan managed to save
Golden crosses
A 30’x18’ rug that required 14 officers to carry out on their shoulders

Pitching In

Approximately 300 firefighters worked on the fire, including firefighters from West Hartford, Bloomfield, and Wethersfield.
Firefighters used approximately 14,000 feet of hose. West Hartford loaned 1,200 feet of hose to replace hose still in bad condition following the fire at Saint Patrick’s.
The hoses were attached to 8-10 fire hydrants, and they forced the closure of both Asylum Avenue and Farmington Avenue. Michael Godfrey requested assistance from the Connecticut State Police, and they sent 50 officers to direct traffic and to relieve Hartford Police on fire line posts.
The Metropolitan District estimated that between 1 and 1.5 million gallons of water were used to combat the fire.
Clyde Green, in charge of the Salvation Army’s Mobile Canteen Unit, estimated that they distributed between 900 and 1000 doughnuts, 100 gallons of coffee, and 25 gallons of hot beef stew. The Salvation Army also provided 120 pairs of dry socks and 72 pairs of work gloves.
Forty Aetna cafeteria workers and seven of their colleagues provided coffee, doughnuts, and sandwiches in the morning. By noon, they had opened the cafeteria to firefighters and police officers who were on break from duty. And they volunteered to keep the cafeteria open until 8 PM.
Mount Saint Joseph Academy in West Hartford provided shelter for the nuns of the Sisters of Mercy.
Trinity Episcopal Church, Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Bushnell Memorial, the Statler Hotel, and the State Armory all offered their facilities for mass on January 1, a holy day of obligation for Catholics. The Cathedral selected the Armory.
The Hartford Board of Education provided two Army surplus boilers while the Cathedral’s boilers were repaired.

Aetna and the Fire

The fire had a significant impact on Aetna and its employees. The fire began before the normal workday started, and it caused some employees to be as much as 30 minutes late to work. Throughout the day, employees went back and forth between their desks and the windows in order to watch the fire. And by midafternoon, Aetna decided to release its employees early, in part to start the New Year’s Day holiday early but mostly to avoid the inevitable crush of rush hour. Remarkably, it took Aetna only 50 minutes to clear all of its 3,000 employees out of the building on a staggered basis.
Burning embers dropped on Aetna’s front lawn, but Aetna apparently wasn’t worried that the fire would spread to its building. The roof was made of tile and stone, which would have helped it to resist fire – but there’s also no indication that embers dropped anywhere but on the front lawn. Compare this to the Hawthorn Mill Fire of 1999, when embers started fires in the buildings along Farmington Avenue and dropped as far north as Windsor.
There’s no indication that any municipal officials coordinated with Aetna during the fire. Aetna put its Civil Defense unit on standby, but I have no ide what they would have done if they proved to be needed. Aetna seems to have acted on its own initiative to release its employees early. And 47 people volunteered to keep the cafeteria opened late, without compensation.

Framing Events

Hartford, and in fact the entire state, were on edge on December 31, 1956, when the fire destroyed the Cathedral of Saint Joseph. According to the Hartford Courant, a combination of events during December 1956 had left especially the city in a state of profound distress and fearful as to what would come next. It’s hard to say how much the Courant accurately reflected the ongoing zeitgeist, because the Courant was very much caught up in these events on a personal level.

Everything started on December 15 in New Britain, when a “mad slayer” shot and killed Edward Kurpewski and Daniel Janowski at an isolated gas station at 1707 Stanley Street. Later that same evening, Nikola Leone was shot in his tailor shop at 517 Zion Street in Hartford. And then early the next morning, on December 16, David Dirk, a teletype operator at the Courant, was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver as he crossed Broad Street head to where he’d parked his car.

Meanwhile, in Trenton, NJ, authorities were dealing with a series of church fires that had plagued the town during 1956. On December 19, Elbert C. Lucas pleaded guilty to setting five fires at churches throughout the year, including the fire that destroyed the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption on March 14. The day after Lucas pleaded guilty, on December 20, Theodore Pravda set fire to a Catholic church, a Ukrainian Orthodox church, and a synagogue. Pravda was quickly captured, and he pleaded guilty to arson on December 22.

Back in Hartford, it didn’t take long for police and the Courant to begin to tie all of these crimes together, but it wasn’t until December 27, when Samuel Cohn was shot and killed in his package store in East Hartford, that police began to treat the killings as the work of the same criminal. By the next day, Frank Chameroy, the head of the State Crime Lab, had been called in from his vacation to examine the bullets from the three shootings, and state and local police would cancel all leaves in order to mount a “giant manhunt for the cold-blooded slayer.”

Shortly after midnight on December 30, a fire broke out at Saint Patrick’s Church, and in just over an hour the building was lost. Initially, the cause of the fire wasn’t known, but the belief was that the fire had originated with the boilers. Lawrence Wren, one of the priests at Saint Patrick’s stated that he thought the fire had begun in the boiler room, and George Hughes, another priest, seemed concerned to point out that the priests blew out all of the candles the night before after hearing confessions in the church. But later in the day, George F. Kennedy, the municipal fire marshal, said that the fire hadn’t started in the boiler room as first believed. He added that arson was being considered because nothing had been ruled out, and he pointed to recent fires at churches in Boston and elsewhere.

All of this came to head with the Cathedral fire. By the time the fire began there around 7:30, it had been about 29-30 hours since the fire at Saint Patrick’s had been brought under control. The Hartford Fire Marshal’s Office and the Hartford Police immediately launched an investigation into the possibility of arson. The fire at Saint Patrick’s was observed to have been similar to this fire, and Henry Thomas, the fire chief, thought that the two fires, occurring as they had, were more than a coincidence. Even the Courant got in on the action: they offered a $1,000 reward for any information that led to the arrest of a church arsonist, and this offer had at least the tacit support of Michael Godfrey, the chief of police. Godfrey would help the Courant determine how to divide up the reward in the event they received more than one tip that led to an arrest.

Both the firefighters and the police were exhausted. The firefighters were out battling a large, destructive fire in the cold for the second time in two days, while police were exhausted from the extensive manhunt for the “mad slayer” that had been underway for the past several days. It’s no wonder that people believed an arson was now active in Hartford, and December 31 turned into a very long day for everyone involved. During the day, seven men were detained for questioning about the fire, and two remained in police custody that night. Godfrey stationed 73 officers at churches and synagogues around Hartford at the request of Carleton Sharpe, the city manager, who’d been requested to make that request by Joseph Cronin, the mayor, along with Roger Ladd, a city council member. Lawrence Shehan, the bishop of Bridgeport, ordered priests in his diocese to keep watch on their churches overnight. West Hartford parishioners joined police in setting up nighttime vigils at their churches.

The Courant added to the belief that the churches had been burned by an arson. They ran an article from the Associated Press titled “Many Fires in Churches in 1956.” This article described 28 fires at places of worship around the country during 1956, with eight of them occurring in Trenton, NJ. There, two men were convicted of setting all eight fires – one man setting five over the course of the year, and the other setting three in one day. Whether there were more church fires in 1956 than in previous years may or may not be the case, but regardless: after two devastating church fires in less than 36 hours the Courant, Hartford, and Connecticut had good cause to believe an arsonist was active and would strike again.

There was even speculation that the “mad slayer” himself had started the fires. The Courant’s drama critic, T. H. Parker, sat down with “one of the state’s leading psychiatrists” to ask about the states of mind of “firebugs.” The leading psychiatrist, oddly never named in the article, outlined two possible types of arsonists: one who sets fires but believes they are right to do so, and the other who sets fires out of some compulsion but recognizes that they were wrong to do it. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist didn’t speculate on which of the two types of arsonists might have set the fires at the two churches. Parker did, however, ask the question that he said was on many minds that day: could the “mad slayer” have set them? The psychiatrist thought not, because arson didn’t fit the pattern of criminal behavior exhibited by the Mad Slayer.

As to the question as to whether the Courant reflected the mood of Hartford or was encouraging the speculation, there is an opinion piece in which the Courant described the Cathedral Fire as a holocaust and both church fires together as apocalyptic through a reference to the horseman representing war. Although “holocaust” can be used to describe complete devastation especially by fire, but the editors’ reference here in connection with the apocalyptic imagery must have evoked images of World War II. Indeed, the images of the burned-out church, with only its exterior walls standing, resembles photos of fire-bombed cities from the war.

So what ultimately turned out from these intertwining stories? I have yet to find any definitive finding that arson had been the cause of the fires. Although police detained numerous people for questioning and even thought they had identified a culprit a couple of times, it doesn’t appear that it was ever proved that the fires were a crime. I also haven’t found any supporting evidence that 1956 has been considered historically a bad year for church fires. The Mad Slayer turned out to be Arthur Culombe and Joseph Taborsky, who were arrested on February 27 and ultimately held responsible for eight violent robberies and six murders. Taborsky is probably Connecticut’s most notorious criminal, having been the only person to serve on Connecticut’s death row twice. As for the hit-and-run death of David Dirk, it took four years for police to identify the driver, but even then police remained uncertain if there hadn’t been two cars involved. So far, I haven’t found any report to say the case was fully and finally resolved.

Outstanding Questions to Answer

So far, it doesn't appear that way. Aetna seems to have decided on its own to release its employees early, and Aetna employees who pitched in to help the firefighters and police officers seem to have decided to do that on their own. There's no specific references to any of the Cathedral's neighbors unless they offered to help out.

At least seven people were questioned during the day of the fire, and two were detained. Later persons of interest included two boys from West Hartford, two men dining out on Albany Avenue, and at least one person sent to a mental institution. But was it arson? So far, I've found no definitive statement that it was.

Watch video of the Cathedral fire

The interweb is an amazing thing.
6 minutes, 39 seconds shot by Warren M. Dunphy, provided to the Archdiocese of Hartford by Daniel Dunphy
Shot from southeast of the cathedral
Firefighters on ladder in front of cathedral
One shot of two kids waving to camera with crowd in background
Flames visible
Firefighters and police on street
Later scenes from Aetna
Aftermath of fire
4 minutes, 23 seconds posted by Steve McGough, made by either James R. McGough or Raymond McGough (or both)
Footage from afternoon of the fire
Shot from Aetna
Footage from later in the afternoon or from the evening
Asylum Hill Congregational Church visible in the background
Firefighters beginning to stow their equipment