The Burning of St. Joseph's Cathedral  
  St. Joseph's Cathedral
150 Farmington Ave.
Hartford, CT

Copyright, January 2012

It was a cold, dark winter morning fifty years ago on Monday, December 31, 1956, when the engineer entered the lower sacristy door at 5:00 a.m. to start the boilers that would heat the vast Cathedral of St. Joseph.

Patrick Keely's St Patrick's Church at Ann & High Streets, Hartford, had burned for the second timejust after midnight the previous Sunday morning. The Hartford Fire Marshall concluded that the origin of the St. Patrick's fire, was at the Christmas Nativity. The Nativity was erected each Christmas season to the right of the main altar, at a side altar. An overheated light, inadvertedly not turned off when the church closed about 9 p.m., most likely was the cause of ignition to hay or spruce boughs, that decorated the scene. Fire eventually spread into the walls, and up into the attic area, when Peter Dolan, passing by, saw smoke issue from the slate roof, and pulled the fire alarm. Most of the roof was destroyed, and the interior was a shmables of debris. St. Patrick's Church was rebuilt while church services were held in the Lower Church.

St. Patrick's Church originally opened December 1851. In 1875, fire struck the first time. Rebuilt from the walls, it opened on November 20, 1876.

St. Joseph's Cathedral had been searched by Cathedral staff Sunday night to make sure it was secure.

Nothing appeared amiss and the Cathedral had been locked for the night.

At 6:00 a.m., the sacristan, Martin G. Roach entered, smelled smoke, but found nothing wrong thinking it a boiler smell. Fire Department Chaplain Fr. Francis O'Neill entered for Mass just before 7:00 a.m. Both he and the sacristan searched again. Finding nothing, they decided it was a boiler smell.

St Josephs Cathedral

As the early morning Mass was being said, smoke began to drift across the recessed, East side Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament was one of two, deeply recessed side Chapels of the six chapels in the Cathedral. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel, like the Blessed Virgin's Chapel, on the West side, was not easily decernable from walking down the main aisle. One just observed a large opening. Just outside the entrance to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, to the right, was a large marble figure of the Sacred Heart. Above the entrance was a roundel with a depiction of the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary, by the noted German muralist for the Cathedral, William, Lamprecht.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel had its own altar, and above were two large wall murals of, "Jesus Breaking Bread at Emmaus," and above that painting, "The Last Jusdement," was seen. On the western wall of the chapel was another Lamprecht large mural, "Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene."

There were two large lancet windows on the right side. They depicted in two tiers, each window, Blessed Julianna of Liege, and the Last Communion of St. Jerome. The other window depicted the Mircle of Bolsena, and St. Thomas Aquinas, writing a desertation, on Corpus Christi. There were two narrow doors on the left side. The far one was a entrance, to and from the sacristy, that led to the area behind the chapel altar rail. The nearer door was direct access to the main sanctuary.

This chapel was a favorite of Bishop Nilan(1910-1934). He offered 7 am Mass in the Chapel, after having been amomg the congregation during 6:30 am Mass. He was the last Bishop to live in the Keely designed rectory, next to the Cathedral.

During 7 am Mass, Mrs. Frances Devine observed a smoky haziness, in the Chapel. She watched it, and it appeared to move across the Chapel. After Communion, Mrs. Devine, said smoke became more visible in the Chapel. "Those attending Mass in the nave would not have noticed anything." After Mass e3nded, Mrs. Devine, approached Deputy Fire Chief James McSweegan, whom she knew, and who was also attending morning Mass. She told him of what she was observing. Chief McSweegan dashed to the sacristy and with Fr. O'Neill, they both, and along with the cathedral engineer, who had just entered the basement by way of the back stairway, went to the Lower Cathedral worship space. The trio, along with a acrid smell of smoke, and intense heat, heard the crackling of flames in the basement ceiling above. This was below the main altar, and caused the first alarm to be pulled at 7:33 am, by Frank Macken, the cathedral's engineer. Fire Headquarters received the alarm from the Cathedral's private Box 621. Mr. Macken ran the 40 feet to the fire box at the back of the rectory, from the basement of the Cathedtral. At the same time a call was also made from the cathedral.
St Joseph Cathedral Fire

This view shows the longitude plaster section of the East wall in the sanctuary, illustrating the triforium gallery section over the side altar. On the wall to the left is one of Joseph Sibbel's, monumental, "ivory tint,"statuary scenes, that measured, 16 feet high, by 6 feet wide. This scene depicts, "Christ Administering Communion to St. Peter and St. John." This was one of nine Sibbel masterpeice scenes that graced the Cathedral sanctuary.
The nave window in the background, has in shadow before, the Keely designed, oak sanctuary screen, that separated the main sanctuary area from the recessed Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The oak screens were replaced by Mcginnis & Walsh, with black wrought iron Spanish style grills, in the 1939 renovation.

Responding to the box were Engines 5, 18, 12 and ladders 1 and 5 with Assistant Chief Thomas F. Lee and Deputy Chief Thomas Shortell.

While awaiting the arrival of the fire apparatus, Chief McSweegan continued to sweep the basement in an effort to locate the source of the fire, while Father O'Neill and Rev. Allen E. Carter carried the Blessed Sacrament to the rectory.

First arriving fire fighters entered the basement, and Chief Mc Sweegan indicated the portion of the ceiling where the fire could be heard, "roaring,"above. Attempts were made to open up this section to apply streams from 2 & 1/2 inch, hand lines, but the fire rapidly moved in the ceiling and walls beyond reach of an effectiv3e attack.

In the Cathedral above, Cassie Ahern saw Mrs. Devine, both whom worked at the Hartford Insurance Group, and she went over to wish her a, "Happy New Year!" Exchanging greetings, they began to leave the Cathedral Farmington Ave. entrance.

As the two women exited, they observed firemen, "pulling in big hoses!" Earlier, upon entering the Cathedral, about 6:50 a.m. for 7 a.m.Mass, Cassie Ahern, said, "It smelled as if someone was burning wood." Thinking that the problem would be quickly taken care of, the two women proceed to walk over the Hartford Group.

As more firemen were arriving, smoke began to billow from the basement, under the main altar and filling the main nave with a haze, which rose to the high ceiling. This allowed movement in the upper Cathedral, which was fortuitous in letting, movable eccesiastical items to be moved from the seven altars, chapels, and main sanctuary, to the rectory.

At first it was decided to move the many eccesiastical items to the Farmington Avenue entrance. Msgr. william Collins, rector of the Cathedral, vetoed that suggestion, saying, "We'll take no chances." and suggested items be moved to the rectory and Cathedral Grammar School auditorium.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, a second alarm was sent in at 7:47 am, by Deputy Fire Chief Thomas F. Lee. This brought Engines 4, 1, 14 and ladder 4 to the scene. Fire Chief Henry Thomas, responded on this alarm and immediately took command. On annual inspections of the cathedral, Chief Thomas had repeatedly urged the installation of a fire supression system. The suggestion was not followed, as it being too much of an expense.

Shortly before 8 am, a portion of the basement ceiling collapsed. This added ceiling to the original plaster ceiling was erected in the 1939 renovation, at which time the cathedral had under pinning in the basement sunk to stabize the shifting structure. The falling ceiling caused back injures to two firemen from Truck Company 1, Lt. John W. Covey, and fireman William E. Powers.
St Joseph Cathedral FireThe photo shows the portion of the ceiling that collapsed infront of the main altar of the lower church. height of the basemnt ceiling was estimated at 14 feet, after the 1939 renovation. The Keely designed oak pews were installed prior to the basement dedication in 1878.

The third alarm went in at 8:17 am, as the size of the fire became evident. The intensity of the smoke and danger in the main sacristy and upper floors, did not allow anyone except firemen in those areas. None of the historic and costly embellished vestments could be removed. Firemen had a difficult time in finding the spreading fire as smoke was seeping from all manner of closets and storage areas. Added to this problem was the fact that plaster and wood lath had been replaced in the 1939 renovation, with metal mesh, plastered walls, extremely difficult to break through to find a source.

After the third alarm had been pulled, white smoke become more visible issuing from the roof of the sacristy. Firefighters worked up through the various floors of the sacristy, at the rear of the cathedral, but the fire continued progress through the nonfirestopped wall and ceiling channels, and other concealed spaces to the attic above the rotunda.

Outside the smoke continued to thicken in the next half hour and whips of smoke began to seep from the peak of the apse in the attic. The cathedral attic was over 300 feet long, 30 feet wide above the nave, and 60 feet wide at the transept.

It also could be observed that the freshly falling snow, began to melt along the curved copper seams of the slate, in the apse roof, and snow began to slide down the east transept slate. Heat was beginning to flow from the lower partitions up open shafts into the vast attic of giant timbers and wood planking.

The following photos illustrate the beauty and end of this noble gothic structure:
Patrick Keely's plan for the pulpit at St. Joseph's
Patrick C. Keely's design for the twenty-eight-foot-high oak and walnut pulpit. The pulpit was topped by a walnut-carved figure of Christ Teaching. The Four Evangelists and Two Great Apostles were placed along the lower edge of the canopy. (Keely Society Archives)

This pulpit photo also shows Joseph Sibbel's sculpture of St. Jerome and his Stations of the Cross which were unique to St. Joseph's Cathedral. Joseph Sibbel, was Keely's premier sculptor in marble, wood, and composition material, which Sibbel referred to as "Ivory tint," denoting not only the shade, but the consistancy of the material. Sibbel, probably worked on over 100, of Keely's ecclesiastical commissions. Sibbel's most viewed pieces, are not in a structure by Keely, but are in the Cathedral of St. Patrick, 5th Avenue, New York City.
They are the seated, marble statues of the Latin and Greek Doctors of the Church, in the side transepts. Keely's ornate plaster designs and triforium gallery areas are also visible. (Dedication Book)

P.C. Keely's design for the grand Hook & Hastings Cathedral organ. Additions were made in 1917 and the organ was enlarged in 1939 by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford. Vincent Scully was the organist for many years at the Cathedral of St. Joseph. (Dedication Book)

Interior of the Hartford Cathedral with its richly patterned wood ceiling. The noted German eccesiastical painter, William Lamprecht, created the transept crossing ceiling painting, "The Sermon on the Mount."(Keely Society Archives)

Firemen ventilate the Cathedral Sacristy roof around 8:30 a.m., seeking the source of the fire. At this time fire was traveling up through the interior wood and plaster lathe partitions.

This west view, from over a quarter mile away, shows the Cathedral towers shrouded in thick billowing smoke as the fire seethes under the great slate roof, and drifts across Farmington Avenue, toward the Aetna Life & Casualty Company,to the south .

Flames leap from the roof of the Chancel. The Tyrolean Art Glass Company's stained glass treasures begin to burst from the intense heat.

The Cathedral explodes in flames and, moves toward the Farmington Avenue facade. Fire soared over 100 feet into the air, according to Fire Chief Henry. The matching twin towers had ornate finnials added in the 1939 renovation. Keely's spires were never added. Originally, a valuable set of chimes were housed in the western tower. When flames shot up the tower, which acted like a chimney, the supports burned through. The chimes were sent crashing down through the floors of the tower to land in the vestibule.

The facade of the Cathedral shows flames bursting from the Rose Window over the main entrance. Its central roundel depicted St. Cecilia and the sixteen pentafoils held depictions of angels playing various instruments. The Hook & Hastings organ has been consumed.

January 1, 1957, dawned cold, brisk, but sunny as the majestic ruins of St. Joseph's Cathedral tower over Farmington Avenue. New York Engineers presented three scenarios for the rebuilding of the Cathedral. The Archives document that the walls were structurally sound. While it could have been repaired, Archdiocesean officials chose to demolish the Portland brown structure, and replace it with a 1960s design. A New York Engineering firm submitted three scenerios for rebuilding

A view of the interior ruins from the east side doorway. It was through this door that many of the Cathedral staff entered the Cathedral from the Keely designed rectory. Joseph Sibbel's damaged figure of St. Gregory the Great is seen at the transept crossing pillar. Beneath the western rose window can be seen the remains of Sibbel's monumental bas-relief of "Christ teaching the Doctors in the Temple." Joseph Sibbel, noted German sculptor, collaborted with Patrick C. Keely, on many church and cathedral projects. The eight arcade openings of the western rose window presented life scenes of the Patriarch Joseph, of the Old Testament. The sixteen pentafoil openings illustrated scenes from the life of St. Joseph, the Cathedral's patron. For more information on Joseph Sibbel, sculptor, please contact the expert at www.josephsibbelofny.com

Copyright, January 2010

St. James Pro-Cathedral on Jay Street in Brooklyn, whose enlargement was superintended by Keely around 1845. In July of 1889, during a summer thunderstorm, lightning struck the steeple, and the structure was lost. Patrick Keely was living not far away on Cleremont Avenue, and would have been keenly aware of its destruction.

The interior of St. James Pro-Cathedral taken about 1888, illustrating the monumental wood reredos, carved by Keely. The candleholders on the main altar were carved from his daughter, Sarah's cradle, according to the family.


This was Patrick C. Keely's first designed ecclesiastical edifice. Dedicated in 1848, it had been begun in 1847, and with the mild winter of 1847-1848, construction was able to continue. It was ready for dedication by May of 1848. During the time of the, "No-Nothing's" anti-immigrant resentment, the Mayor of Brooklyn, prevented its destruction by fire. Later the Keely steeple was removed, and also, a bow-bay facde was constructed. Facing declining parish enrollment in the 1950's the structure was demolished in February of 1957. Ironically, at the same time in Hartford, CT, Keely's "Completed Masterpiece," St. Joseph Cathedral, on Farmington Ave. was also being demolished as a result of the fire of December 31, 1956. By the mid-1960's immigrant groups from Central America, settled in Williamsburg, and a new Sts. Peter and Paul Church, was constructed. The sacristy case, and a pre-dieu from the original Keely edifice were placed in the new 1960's church.


This 1888, view of the interior of Sts. Peter and Paul, gives one an understanding of the detail in the great carved reredos, completed by Patrick Keely. The two stained glass windows in the sanctuary area, were crafted by the Morgan Brothers. Although members of the Dutch Reformed Church, this first installation began a relationship that would last for years, especially in Cathedral commissions that Keely received. Bishops and priests from far and wide attended the dedication of this gothic style church in Williamsburg. The result was that Patrick Keely's design services were sought immediately for Cleveland, and the new Cathedral at Albany, NY.

An article from the Irish World, September 19, 1896 entitled, "The Late Architect Keely," contains a description of a requiem Mass celebrated at Sts. Peter and Paul Church the month following Keely's death. It mentions the description of the decorations in Sts. Peter & Paul's Church for the requim Mass.

"The altar was draped in purple, and in front of the altar, in the centre aisle, stood a handsome catafalque and candelabra. Two palms surmounted the catafalque, while the candeabra contained twenty-six lights. A special musical programme was rendered under the direction of the organist, Frederick Bradles, and the choir of the church."

Piece submitted through the kindness of www.josephsibbelofny.com


Copyright, January 2010

ST. PATRICK"S CHURCH, THOMPSONVILLE, (ENFIELD, CT)- PATRICK KEELY, 1880, 1888, cornerstones, 1904 Dedication

A view of the sanctuary ceiling, which was created by Mortensen & Holdensen, of Boston, MA, in 1904. Nine decorating firms vied for the contract to decorate the interior of this, 1888-1904, Keely edifice. Tiffany & Co.and Rambusch Decorators, of New York City, were two of the notable firms that submitted designs. On a background of rich cream and gold mosaic pattern, the central focus was a heavenly oval with God the Father surrounded by putti, and two heavenly angels. On the left side of the ceiling was depicted St. Patrick, and on the right was an image of St. Briget of Ireland, both life size depictions.


A detail of St. Patrick and Angel of Praise, painted on the ceiling of the sanctuary by Mortensen and Holdensen of Boston, MA. At the lower left, St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, can be seen. What appeared to many as a palm tree next to the saint, was in actualaty a Monk Tree. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream circle near the lower tip of Ireland, and give rise to this type of palm looking tree.


This ornate trowel was used at the laying of the front cornerstone of St. Patrick's Church. A first cornerstone was set when the basement Chapel of st. michael was begun in 1880. At the laying of the 1888 cornerstone a lottery was held to raise funds. Each partiocipant would pay $ 1.00. A Scotsman, who emigrated to work in the carpet mill of Thompsonville, was the winner. He eventually returned to his native home of Scotland. The trowel resides with the family today.


An altar of "blanco marble," from Italy, was installed in 1904, when the church was dedicted. Charles Hall of Boston, MA, brokered its execution and installation. Two Angels of Adoration flank the lower reredos, and were created by Joseph Sibbel, noted German sculptor. Sibbel created the seated Doctors of the Church, in the transepts of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Ave., New York City.

Information on the decorating, and marble pieces, was supplied by Delma Tallerico, Keely Society Expert on Joseph Sibbel.


This vague photo illustrates the Shrine of St. Ann, in the rear of St. Patrick's Church. Short 4" candles were used in a stand before the figure of St. Ann & the Virgin Mary. The wainsoting around the church, and recessed wall shrines had been varnished just before Christmas 1948. On January 5, 1949, it is possible that one of the candles, which had not been secured tightly in its holder, tumbled to the floor. The candle probably did not extinguish as it fell . Melting wax caught fire, igniting the old lineolium. It then spread to the newly varnished wainscoting, and a disaster of major proportions brought about the end of the Keely designed, of St. Patrick's Church. Fire investigators pinpointed the Shrine of St. Ann, as the point of origin for the disastorius blaze.


The facade of St. Patrick's church is encircled with thick white smoke around 1 PM. Entrance into the structure was impossible without the aid of a air mask. At this point in time, the fire most likely had travelled up through the walls, and was involving the length of the blind attic. Within minutes after this photo was taken, fireman began placing a ladder up to the rose window, over the main entrance. Fireman William Mills clambered up the ladder, as the wood extension ladder bent under his weight. Smashing a hole in the rose window, it set up an explosion of flames which broke through the slate roof above.


White smoke issues from under the eaves of the turret roof. Fireman were able to climb the stairs to the organ gallery in this turret, but without hoses. When they returned to ascend the stairs intense heat, and upper flmaes blocked their path. During this time Fire Chief Thomas Furey donned a oxygen mask, and went through the sacristy door to reomve the Blessed Sacrament from the main altar. Some Firefighters and bystanders, including Cathedral Highschoolers, Francis J. Furey, and Red O'Malley, helped remove valuable vestments from the sacristy closets until it became unsafe.


Fire has exploded up and out through the atiic area into a drizzily January day. The beautiful Mayer of Munich, stained glass windows brust in the intense heat. The three windows of the apse, left to right, depicted the Resurrection, the Crucifixion, and the Nativity of Jesus.


This close up view of the richly patterened brick facade, on the Sisters of Mercy Convent on Willobuoy Ave. in Brooklyn, NY, reveals brocklayers skill long gone into memory. Keely designed a number of similar looking structures for various branches of the Sisters of Mercy. This is probably the only survining example left.

Both the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouses in Hartford, CT, and Middletown, CT. have been demolished. The Middletown Ct, Convent demolished in July,2007.


Keely's design for the brickwork and window frames,on the facade of the Brooklyn, NY, Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse.


A look into the stunning Chapel which is part of the monumental Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse on Willobuoy Ave. in Brooklyn, NY. The richness of design suggests that the Chapel might have been enlarged, and enhanced by Thomas Houghton, Patrick Keely's son-in-law. This treasure is one that cannot be duplicated today.