“From the Archives” 1929 Fire at Saint Mary’s

Ninety-one years ago this summer, on June 6, 1929, lightning struck Saint Mary’s steeple during the Wednesday evening meeting of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lightening traveled down the steeple, igniting the electrical system in the church. All the lights went out but no one realized the building was burning. Father Michael J. Cannon, assistant pastor, calmly finished benediction by candlelight and escorted the 40 or 50 Sodality members outside. A neighbor, J.T. Preston of 218 South Royal Street, saw thick smoke coming from the church roof and called the fire department. Every piece of fire apparatus in Alexandria responded.

Father Cannon and Father Martin Quinn, another assistant pastor, joined parish volunteers in removing the Blessed Sacrament, vestments, altar fixtures and other valuable items from the altar and sacristy. Saint Mary’s organist Joseph Monroe smelled the smoke and hastily escaped from the burning choir loft. Hundreds of people gathered in the streets to watch the spectacle.

The next morning, parishioners were shocked to see the great damage to their church. A large portion of the metal ceiling had fallen as the wooden beams between it and the roof burned. The total loss, estimated at $60,000 in 1929 (more than $900,000 today!) included the $10,000 organ. Two stained-glass windows at the rear of the church were demolished. The altar, Stations of the Cross, pews and hardwood floors were badly damaged, as were the sacristy and the ambulatory, the hallway between the sacristy and rectory. Fortunately, the beautiful marble statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph were unharmed.

Father William A. McKeefry, Saint Mary’s Pastor, immediately began restoring the church. Mass was celebrated in the Lyceum until the work was completed. Parish organizations held fundraising activities to pay for repairs not covered by insurance. A second-hand organ was purchased from a church in Maryland for $1,800. A new tabernacle, monstrance and baptismal font were among the major gifts donated by generous parishioners. The tabernacle and monstrance were donated by the Lawler family. The Catholic Daughters donated the marble baptismal font in honor of their foundress, Mrs. Aurelia Whitcomb O’Sullivan. A new ambulatory was built and the sacristy repaired.

Sadly, Father McKeefry died not long after the fire while he was actively engaged in the restoration work; some say he never got over the impact of the damage to his beautiful church. The renovation was completed in January 1932, under the direction of Saint Mary’s new pastor, Father Thomas Rankin.

– Kitty Guy, Parish Historian

Throughout 2020, the Basilica of Saint Mary will present “From the Archives.” It is a weekly feature online and in our bulletin spotlighting the history of the parish. All of our “From the Archives” features are located here

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