Chief: 'We saved the church'

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Feb. 23—LAWRENCE — At least 100 firefighters from Lawrence and area cities and towns spent hours Monday night battling a stubborn four-alarm blaze in the rectory of Corpus Christi Parish at Holy Rosary Church at 35 Essex St.

Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said the firefighters were able to keep the fire from leaping from the rectory down two hallways that led into the church.

"Even though it was a bad fire, we saved the church," he said. "It was an excellent stop, tremendous."

Parish pastor, the Rev. Francis Mawn, was the sole occupant of the rectory and he escaped unharmed. No other injuries have been reported, Moriarty said.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation Tuesday.

The rectory building was left charred with a giant black hole through the roof. The church building did suffer water damage and will need repairs. But Moriarty said he believes "the church building is still going to be there."

"I'm very impressed. They worked so hard ... a very difficult, hard-fought battle," said Moriarty.

Firefighters doused the blaze with a combination of ladder pipes "hitting it from above" and hand-held lines. The fire broke out around 6:20 p.m. and then flared up again a little over an hour later, each time with firefighters ready to knock it down, Moriarty said.

Heavy fire from the rectory was visible when firefighters first arrived Monday night. Moriarty said they "banged out four alarms" bringing in mutual aid crews from a hearty contingent from around the region.

"We needed all the help we could get," Moriarty said.

Access to the rectory was limited to two sides — Common and Essex streets. Moriarty noted a "really good water" supply to fight the fire was available downtown.

"The difficulty with this fire was access. The alleyway was all ice behind St. Alfio's," he said, referring to the adjacent St. Alfio Society building.

Electrical lines to the rectory and the church run underground, so when National Grid was asked to cut the power the whole block went out, Moriarty said.

"It wasn't just like pulling a breaker on a telephone pole," he explained.

Lawrence firefighters were assisted by mutual aid firefighters from Andover, North Andover, Lowell, Haverhill, Methuen, Danvers, Middleton, Salem, New Hampshire, Billerica, Reading and North Reading.

Holy Rosary Church was founded by Italian immigrants in 1904. In the '60s, it embraced the first Cubans to arrive in Lawrence, and later other Hispanic communities, according to the church's website.

In November 2004, the Archdiocese of Boston established Corpus Christi Parish by uniting Holy Rosary and three other ethnic churches — Holy Trinity (Polish), St. Francis (Lithuanian) and Sts. Peter and Paul (Portuguese).

The church is the backbone of the annual Feast of the Three Saints in Lawrence and beloved to many throughout the Merrimack Valley who have attended Masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals and more there.

This is a developing story. Check back to for updates. A complete report will appear online and in Wednesday's print edition of The Eagle-Tribune.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

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