Category Archives: Lowell Catholic Church History

Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Associate Building, 1924

The first alarm sounded just after midnight on April 28, 1924. Lowell’s firemen arrived soon after to find tendrils of smoke wafting from the Associate Building’s fourth floor windows. Inside, the Portuguese Club was ablaze. By the time firemen gained access to the downtown Lowell landmark, they found the fire well underway inside and quickly sounded a second alarm. As one o’clock in the morning approached, a general alarm was sounded and help was called in from Lawrence and Dracut.

The Associate Building was well worth saving. Built more than thirty years earlier, it was set on the corner of Merrimack and Worthen Streets, in the heart of Lowell’s downtown, overlooking City Hall and Monument Square. By 1924, its five stories of yellow brick housed the Brockton Shoe Store, the City Hall Drug Store, Freeman & Co. Clothiers, as well as several dentists, tailors, and chiropractors. Its basement even had its own bowling alley.

In this excerpt from a 1924 Lowell City Atlas, the lot where the Associate Building stood is marked with “J. Bateman”.

As the hours wore on during that late April morning, Lowell’s Monument Square was filled with clouds of sparks and smoke as the Associate Building burned. Lowell’s fire department fought the flames from the ground, from ladders hoisted against the building, and from inside the building. Lowell’s Engine 3 streamed water from inside the Associate Building’s fourth floor dance hall. Lowell’s Engine 6 fought the flames from ladders outside, far above Worthen Street. They were making progress. The fire was coming under control.

Captain Edward Cunningham

Until the massive hot air explosion. In that flash, firemen inside were blown back into a hallway, against walls. Some were thrown flat on their backs. Outside, Hoseman John W. Gray, atop the ladder at the time of the explosion, was hurled, ladder and all, across Worthen Street into the brick wall of the opposite building. His life belt saved his life, but still left him with multiple injuries, including a broken nose. He was sent to St. John’s Hospital for treatment. His Captain, Edward Cunningham, didn’t fare as well. The explosion crushed Captain Cunningham under a falling wall of bricks. His fellow firemen risked their lives as they pulled him free from the rubble. He was still conscious when they loaded him into the ambulance bound for the Lowell Corporation Hospital. His comrades later learned that he died before he ever got to the hospital.

In the wake of the explosion, all men were recalled from the building. Moments after their escape, the walls and floor of the hall where they had been failed. The truck that had hoisted Capt. Cunningham’s ladder was split into two from the force of the explosion. Its engine had been crushed into its front wheels. Some men were temporarily trapped in the building. Others had to be pulled from the rubble in the street. The explosion also spread the flames far beyond the Associate Building. In moments, the Academy of Music building and Sparks’ Stable were now seriously threatened.

Soon, the fire threatened the entire area bounded by Merrimack, Dutton, Market, and Worthen streets. It became clear that the Associates Building was a total loss. The Sparks’ Harness Shop was declared a lost cause not long after. Despite the early hour, crowds began to gather and saw that the Academy of Music building, the Kennedy Building, and the Knights of Columbus Building were starting to smolder. Sparks’ Stable and the Mongeau Building weren’t far away from the flames either.

Another wall of the Associate Building collapsed and hit Sparks’ harness shop. A gasoline pump outside Sparks’ blew up in a burst of flame, but the tank stayed intact. Another wall collapsed and destroyed Kennedy’s Building. Soon after, the Academy of Music, all three of its wooden stories, caught fire, and burnt quickly. H. P. Hood’s offices, on one floor of the building, were completely lost. Soon after, the flames jumped Dutton Street, from the Academy of Music to the wooden Knights of Columbus building, which had once been the First Trinitarian Congregational Church. Firemen fought to save the building. In the end, they did succeed in saving the building’s stained glass windows. The firemen from Lawrence finally stopped the flames from advancing any further toward Market Street.

The firemen directed their streams at the Mongeau Building, which was starting to smolder. Ladder 4′s Herbert Cogswell fought valiantly before collapsing on the building’s top floor. George Hurley was later overcome in the same battle. Both were sent in clanging ambulances toward St. John’s Hospital. As the Mongeau Building was saved, the YMCA building across Dutton Street started to receive its own showering of sparks. Lodgers were drafted right out of the line of those removing their belongings to form a temporary brigade to wet down the building. Their efforts saved the YMCA from certain destruction.

One close call occurred when Sparks’ Stable, which housed some 30 horses belonging to the H P Hood Company, started to spark and smolder. An ambulance driver and a patrolman battled pandemonium as they removed the horses from the burning stable. Nervous store owners watched the sparks shower down across the downtown. As far away as Shattuck Street’s Lowell Electric Light Company, an awning caught fire. One man, never identified, was saved from a wall of falling bricks when he was pulled into a doorway by Lowell Patrolman John Mahan.

The Ruins of the Associate Building, as shown in an ad from the Brockton Shoe Store

In the end, ten firemen in all were sent to city hospitals with injuries from the blaze. Even more suffered minor injuries. The fire was then the largest in the city’s history. Every available piece of equipment in Lowell, two companies from Lawrence, and two from Dracut arrived to fight the fire and each was fully needed. Despite their efforts, the fire changed Lowell’s streetscape forever. The Associate Building, the Academy of Music, and Sparks’ Stable were all total losses. The Knights of Columbus building and the H P Hood Building were both considered beyond repair.

At one point, the blaze grew so hot that the glass on City Hall’s clock cracked. The damage was so complete that the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway would not run its cars past the ruins of the Associate Building until its ruined walls were taken down that day after.

Captain Edward Cunningham of Engine 6 lost his life fighting the fire. Appointed to the force in 1911, he was promoted to Lieutenant in 1918, and to Captain in 1922. He had earned the respect of Chief Saunders, who described him as a “splendid young man, of a clear and sterling character”. He was remembered as a fearless and courageous firefighter, who had headed the movement to educate school children on fire safety. In his final minutes, Capt. Cunningham was offered religious solace from the popular Rev. Appleton Grannis, of St. Anne’s Church. Cunningham, a Catholic, was comforted by the Episcopal clergyman until Rev. Dr. McGarry of St. Patrick’s Church arrived to administer last rites. Captain Edward Cunningham left behind a wife, Helen, and three young children, Leo, Helen, and Pauline, all under ten years old.

The Cunningham Family, as shown in the 1920 census. Their youngest daughter Pauline had not yet been born.


The First Years of Sacred Heart Parish: Lowell, Massachusetts, 1880′s

Decidedly more rural in the years before the construction of Sacred Heart Church, the land that would eventually sit under the parish’s buildings was then owned by the Meadowcroft and Andrews families.

Moore, Andrews, Whipple, Meadowcroft:  If you spent a good span of your childhood years in Lowell, Massachusetts attending school or church at Sacred Heart, all of these names will be familiar to you.  The streets closest to Sacred Heart carry those names, which date back to the decades before Sacred Heart’s founding when the area was much more rural, and formed the southern edge of the city.  But, who were they?  And how did Sacred Heart come to be built in South Lowell?

On June 7, 1880, James Meadowcroft owned precisely 39 acres of land on the southern side of Moore Street.  Some was tilled; some lay  fallow.  Meadows formed some of his land; the rest was forest.  Meadowcroft was a wealthy man.   He also owned the farming implements, machinery, and livestock to sustain a healthy income.  He had year-round help in running the farm.  And, his farm had produced hay, milk, butter, eggs, and potatoes during 1879.

By no means a young man at 63 in 1880, James Meadowcroft was what that age called a gentleman farmer.  He had retired from his profession as a blacksmith.  His wife, Alice, 60, was just a bit younger.  Both had been born in England.  He had become a naturalized citizen in 1852.  By 1880, all of their children had moved on; only a nephew, George Green, lived with them.  He was 48 and without occupation.  A servant named Sarah Moody saw to their needs.

Some years before, James Meadowcroft had cut out a small portion of his land for his oldest son, John, who lived in a home on the western edge of his Moore Street property with his wife Bertha.  John made his living as a real estate agent.  His other three children had grown up and moved on.  To steal a term from a much later age, the Meadowcrofts were ‘empty-nesters’ and were probably looking to move on from the Moore Street property they had occupied for at least three decades.  Across the street in the former home of William Andrews, a marble worker, the Litchfield family had just moved in.  Paul Litchfield, 46, listed his occupation as a mill owner in 1880.  He and his wife, Sarah, raised their family of five children on the future site of the Sacred Heart School, who ranged in age from 6 to 22 years old.

Moore Street was still a dirt road in 1883 when church officials approached the Meadowcrofts about selling their land to the church.  The street had at least been macadamized (paved with gravel) by 1891, when they approached the Litchfields about the sale of their land to allow for a parish school to be built.  The area had remained very rural and quiet, but the Catholic population was growing in what was then the city’s southern extreme.  By some accounts, the Catholic population in South Lowell had reached 3,000 by that time.  A church was needed, and St. Peter’s was thought to be rather distant for those living in the Bleachery and Ayers City sections of Lowell.  Some folks even came up from Wigginville, just down Lawrence Street – which, at that point, hadn’t yet been annexed from Tewksbury (and wouldn’t be until 1906).

Sacred Heart Church, just a few years after its completion – 1900 (From A City of Spindles – Lowell Trades and Labor Council)

Until Sacred Heart Church performed its first mass in 1884, those 3,000 Catholics remained assigned to the St. Peter’s Church district.  Ground was broken for the new parish on Eastern Sunday, 1884; church fairs were held to raise funds.  Construction progressed rapidly.  Father Joyce, an Oblate father and an assistant in the Immaculate Conception Parish, oversaw the founding of the parish, the buying of its land, and presided over the dedication of its basement, on August 10, 1884 by Archbishop Williams, after a solemn high mass was said by Rev. Father Lefevre of Montreal, the provincial of the order.  While the basement was used for services, the church proper was constructed.  Its corner-stone was laid in June 1896.

The Sacred Heart area, some 20 years later, in 1896. The area has experienced significant development, notably along the western side of Andrews Street and the south side of Moore Street.

The first Sacred Heart School building was constructed to accommodate some 400 students – though, initially, the school had far less.  It opened for the 1892-93 school year.  By 1899, 250 students attended.  Opposite the church, it fronted Andrews Street on one side, Moore Street on the other – though it was still separated by a single building, which was eventually razed and replaced in 1909 by what later became known as the “new old school” that burnt to the ground decades later, in 1967.  As the school neared completion in 1892, plaster was applied to the woodwork in each of its eight classrooms, each 32 by 24 feet.  Each classroom had its respective cloak room, measuring 4 feet by 18 feet.  Lots of attention was paid to the woodwork, to the doors, and to the circular transoms above each.  As the school was completed on its ‘garden lot’, a contemporary writer commented that the setting was ‘very quiet’, ‘surrounded by beautiful trees’ and had an open field in front of the building that was ready for construction to support the parish’s expansion.

Readers – Do you remember the gleaming hardwoods, the transoms, and the cloakroom of the 1892 school building?  Do you have other memories of the church, or any of the three Sacred Heart school buildings?  During my time there, the 1892 school building was used for the primary grades, with the 1968 building housing Grades 4 and up.  If you have any Sacred Heart photographs that you’d like to share, I will work them into a future post.    


The Construction of St. Peter’s Church – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1892

Once located on Lowell‘s Gorham Street, St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lowell in 1841, ten years after the founding of St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic church.  Many readers will remember the impressive edifice that once stood at 323 Gorham, across from Lowell’s courthouse building; however, this was actually the church’s third building.  St. Peter’s Church spent its first fifty years in two other locations.  The first church building, made of brick, was built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets and served the congregation from its founding until 1890.

The Post Office building, located at the intersection of Lowell’s Gorham and Appleton Streets, marks the site of the original St. Peter’s Church, which had been demolished several years before this 1896 map was drawn. St. Peter’s Orphanage still stood on Appleton street, just two doors down from the original church location, at this time.

As Lowell’s Catholic population surged through the 1880′s, it soon became very obvious that St. Peter’s would need a newer, larger church building.  Rev. Michael Ronan, pastor since 1883, negotiated the sale of the land on which the first St. Peter’s stood, to the federal government for the construction of a new post office.   The funds from that sale allowed the church to build a larger building, but the timing of the new post office’s construction schedule did not allow St. Peter’s adequate time to construct their new building.  The first St. Peter’s came down, before the next could go up – and the congregation faced the threat of homelessness.

Rev. Michael Ronan pastored the church during the construction.  As the new Gorham Street building was constructed, a temporary wooden church was built very near the site, and served the congregation.  That building’s size was still considerable:  120 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it stood 18 feet in height.  The church moved its pews from the old church and seating was provided for up to 1,500 people.  Its first mass was held on April 27, 1890, not even one month before the old church came down, on May 20, to make room for the new post office.

The map above, from an 1896 Atlas, shows the new St. Peter’s Church, in gray, across the street from the Courthouse, and the temporary church, in yellow, located slightly up the street, where St. Peter’s School would stand.

Time passed and the congregation continued to use the temporary building for a couple of years.  The congregation acquired land further down Gorham Street, and worked to clear some frame houses that stood on the site.

St. Peter’s Church, which stood on Gorham Street in Lowell, as it appeared in 1905. The building stood until its demolition in 1996.

Construction began in 1892.  Local newspapermen estimated that some 10,000 people packed Gorham and South streets to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, September 11 of that year under delightful weather.  Even the floor that had been placed over the new foundation was packed with people.  Along South Street, an altar and pulpit had been temporarily constructed; Irish and US flags had been set up for the Mass.  Some 65 clergy helped in celebrating the Mass to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, headed by Archbishop John J. Williams.  Others hailed from churches all over Massachusetts, some near Boston, some closer to home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The granite church was completed in 1900, instantly became a local landmark, and dominated the local streetscape for nearly a century.  Its twin towers could be seen for quite some distance – one stood nearly 200 feet high, the other 176 feet high.  Due to declining enrollment, the church closed in 1986.  The building stood vacant for nearly ten years, falling into increasing states of disrepair while options for its next use were discussed.  Eventually, no new use was found and the building was demolished about ten years later in the mid-90′s.  Green space covers the site now, which is dominated solely by the courthouse.  Rev. Michael Ronan’s memory lives on in Father Ronan Terrace, a cross street connecting Gorham and South streets, near the church’s former site.  The church’s memory lives on in the building that once housed its rectory.  Still standing next to the former church site, its red brick exterior is barely visible in the photograph above, at right (to the left of the church).  An insurance agency now occupies the building.  St. Peter’s Convent, crumbling and beyond repair, was razed several years ago to add a much-needed parking area for a local funeral home.