Fire, smoke and stone

St. Bernard’s Church fire was 50 years ago

Jack Sweeney holds the ciborium that held consecrated wafers at St. Bernard's Catholic church when the church burned in December 1967. Sweeney, who served 37 years in the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, crawled through the smoke-filled church to retrieve the Host during that fire. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

SARANAC LAKE — On Dec. 5, 1967, a dusting of snow was on the ground and the temperature was below freezing. A few minutes after 6 o’clock, Viola Rascoe had just finished her shift at Deissler’s bakery when she made her usual stop at St. Bernard’s Church to light a votive candle.

The gray stone church in the center of Saranac Lake village, built in 1912, was the center of faith practice for two-thirds of the village. Out of a population of 6,200 in 1967, 4,600 of Saranac Lake’s residents were Catholic. They went to St. Bernard’s for baptisms and communion, weddings and funerals, Mass and confession. With its 91-foot-high tower and its altar of Carrara marble, the church formed an elegant centerpiece in the village’s eclectic architecture.

Ron and Peg Keough, who lived across the street, had been married in St. Bernard’s and with their five young sons were actively involved in the life of the parish. The family was preparing to celebrate the second birthday of their youngest son, Brian, and had just sat down to await Peg’s entrance with the candle-lit cake when Ron got up to answer the phone.

Monsignor Noel Zimmerman was out of town, having left the parish to travel first to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and thence to Schenectady for ear surgery. In his stead a Father Smith, from Australia, had been assigned by the Church to stand in. John Looby and Clyde Lewis, two young priests on their first assignment, assisted Smith with services.

Father Lewis had the night off and was visiting some friends on Circle Street.

Peg and Ron Keough stand in their dining room, where they were when the doors of St. Bernard’s church blew out. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

When Mass concluded around 5:45 p.m., Looby and Smith had put the church in order and retired to the rectory next door.

Jack Sweeney and the boys of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department were hoping for a quiet shift because several of them had to get up and work in the morning.

Patrick Ratigan, who would grow up to become Father Ratigan, lived in a house across the street from St. Bernard’s, not far from the one he now occupies at the church rectory. The Ratigan family had just sat down to pork chops.

Viola Rascoe would later tell Howard Riley of the Enterprise that she couldn’t remember whether she lit her candle or not.

She smelled smoke. She heard an ominous rumbling coming from the basement of the church and felt the floor shaking. The basement, at that time, was full of donated clothing from the church’s Thanksgiving clothing drive.

The front page of the Enterprise on Dec. 6, 1967 shows the devastating fire that destroyed St. Bernard’s church.

Rascoe ran next door to the rectory and found Catherine McKillip in the kitchen. “I think the church is on fire,” she said. Her tan coat was dusted with soot.

On the other side of the street, Ron Keough was talking to the state police on the phone. As a county coroner, Keough was often called to the phone at odd hours, but he was keeping an eye on the progress of the birthday cake.

“There was a car parked in front of Father Ratigan’s house,” said Keough. “Somebody came out of the church and lit a cigarette. He stood there next to his car, smoking.”

Then the doors of the church blew out. Flames shot out the front of the church as far as the streetlamp across the street.

“I didn’t know if it was the church. I thought our house had just exploded,” said Peg Keough. She dropped the cake.

Fearing that the remaining stones of the tower would fall on adjacent buildings, demolition crews removed the rest of the church during the month of January. (Enterprise photo — Bill McLaughlin)

“When the fireball came out, he threw the cigarette down and drove off,” said Keough. “I told the state police our church was on fire, but they didn’t believe me. I had to hang up on them.”

Keough hung up the phone and called the fire department. He and Rev. Daniel Partridge of the Methodist Church next door tried to get into the sanctuary. There was a fire hose inside the church, to the right of the front doors, but once they got inside it was too dark and smoky to see. When they turned around to go out, the vacuum created by the fire held the door shut.

“It was a struggle just to get the door open,” Keough said. “We couldn’t see anything — I thought we were both going to die.” The two of them retreated from the smoke-filled building.

When firefighters arrived, Sweeney volunteered to go in the back door to get the consecrated Host, which was still in the church, under the altar. The Bible relates that Christ said to his disciples that the bread and wine shared at the last supper were his body and blood, and directed them to partake of both in his memory. The Host is the sacramental wafers or bread used in this ritual, which is called the Eucharist.

Sweeney and Father Smith tried to enter the church, but Smith was repelled by the smoke. In his turnout kit, Sweeney was better protected. He had Doug Duquette tie a rope around him before he tried a second time to enter the church, crawling on his hands and knees toward the altar.

After a wooden church burned in 1909, the parish decided rebuilding with stone would be safer. (Photo from the Saranac Lake Free Library's Adirondack Research Room)

“The heat hadn’t got up there, but it was pitch black,” said Sweeney. Even with a flashlight, he could hardly see the floor. He made his way to the altar by memory, and got the ciborium — the ceremonial chalice that holds the consecrated wafers for the Eucharist — out.

“I spilled some,” Sweeney remembered.

Delivering the ciborium to Father Smith, Sweeney rejoined the firefighting crews. Fire departments from all the surrounding towns sent trucks to help combat the fire, dousing the church in a lake’s worth of water, to no avail. The fire burned through the night.

“It was by the grace of God that we got out.” said Sweeney. “After the air got to it, there was no saving the building.”

Although the outer walls of the church were made of Vermont stone, there was plenty of wood to burn inside. The thickness of the floors and the stone walls became barriers to the firefighters trying to break through and get water on the fire. When they finally did get water into the burning building, it pushed the fire back toward the tower; the staircase from the basement, which continued to the choir loft, “was like a chimney,” said Sweeney.

St. Bernard’s Church was widely considered one of the most beautiful in the North Country due to its hand-painted sacristy and altar of imported Carrara marble. (Photo from the Saranac Lake Free Library's Adirondack Research Room)

The closest building, the rectory, was the one in immediate danger, but firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to it. Firefighters and the three pastors started moving the church files from the rectory to a safer place.

“We stayed up all night watching the church burn,” said Lewis.

“I think the altar fell through about 11 o’clock,” said Father Ratigan. “Once that altar fell through, it caused a big draft.”

In the Keoughs’ house, Ron and Peg were quickly turning their downstairs into an impromptu headquarters for the firefighters. “Our downstairs was a mess. The boys were mad at us because we sent them to our in-laws for the night,” Peg remembered. Pat Meagham, who babysat for the family, helped get the boys sorted while neighbors, friends and village personnel poured into the house.

The Keoughs’ house, from its vantage point across the street, provided a safe, warm place to watch the fire.

“You could tell it wasn’t going well,” said Peg. “The fire went so quickly.”

Peg remembered that the wind was blowing, and the firefighters would come in with their turnout suits glazed with ice. They had to thaw their outer layers before they could get them off, she said.

As the night wore on, the thousands of gallons of water pouring onto the church flowed into the streets and froze. Firefighters spread tons of sand to keep the streets from turning into ice rinks, so much so that when the sun came up “it looked like a beach,” said Peg.

The tragedy affected the entire community, and as happens, the people of Saranac Lake pitched in to help each other.

“Everybody was working in the same direction,” said Father Lewis.

The church had a holy day of obligation coming up on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Because it was an emergency, the Harrietstown Town Council allowed the parish to use the town hall for Mass that day. In the end the Pontiac Theater let them hold regular Sunday Masses there, and during the week the congregation was able to use the Methodist church.

“We had great relations with the pastor of the Methodist church,” said Father Lewis. “We used the candy counter at the Pontiac Theater for a sacristy. At that time, they were showing stag movies there!”

“They say your first assignments are always the best memories,” said Lewis, who was 28 at the time of the fire. “But I had never seen so much tragedy.” During his three years in Saranac Lake, Lewis witnessed three or four suicides, he said, and St. Bernard’s wasn’t the only church that burned. Sweeney recalled there were two or three others, and arson was suspected.

“It was pretty traumatic to everybody,” said Peg Keough. “It’s an event our boys will always remember.”

Within two years, the parish rallied and built a new church. The one that stands there now is the third church building in the history of the parish, the first having been built in 1892. That one, made of wood, burned as well, in 1909.

Although he was only 9 years old at the time of the fire, Father Ratigan remembers the homily Father Lewis delivered the following Sunday, when Lewis held up the front page of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. “St. Bernard’s Church Totally Destroyed By Fire,” read the headline.

“No, it didn’t,” Lewis told the congregation. “The church is alive and well. Only the building is gone.”

Howard Riley’s column: “Crowds watching had tears in their eyes”