WFSB & WFSB history

Hartford Cathedral Fire of 1956

60  years ago this New Year’s Eve, a devastating fire in Hartford made headlines around the world.    The ornate Cathedral of St. Joseph, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Hartford, was destroyed by fire.  Shockingly, it happened the day after another fire nearly destroyed St. Patrick’s Church, now called St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church on Church Street.

The disasters were captured on rare film now kept in the Channel 3 archives shot on December 31, 1956 and January 1, 1957. .    Channel 3 didn’t go on the air until September of 1957,  so the origin of the film is unknown.   We can tell you the film aired in 1962 as part of a special commemorating the consecration of the new cathedral, which opened on May 15, 1962.

The special was narrated by Ross Miller and features a report on the fire from Ed Anderson, who was live on the scene for WTIC radio, which back then was part of the Channel 3 family.     At the link below, you’ll see vintage clips of inside the cathedral before the fire, firefighters battling the stubborn blaze,  onlookers in shock, Archbishop Henry O’Brien talking to reporters, and the subsequent rebuilding.

Worshippers at a morning mass on New Year’s Eve ’56 smelled smoke, but firefighters couldn’t locate the fire right away.   By the time they did, the flames were out of control and destroyed the rare wood carvings inside the church.    Due to the fact it happened right after the St. Patrick’s fire, arson was suspected, but no one was ever charged, and the case remains unsolved.   As you might imagine, people were concerned about another fire, and  Ed Anderson’s report talks about beefed up security by HPD at churches across the city.

Watch the old film right here:


19 replies »

  1. I was 6 years old at the time of the Catherdral fire. My father was a Hartford Firefighter. He was in the basement when he heard the cry from fellow firefighters that the roof was collapsing.

    The smoke was so thick he could not find his way out. He got n his hands and knees and followed the fire hose out. Once outside the roof collapsed and I have a wonderful picture of him coming out of the building (that was publised in the Hartford Courant). You can see the devastation on his face. I will always remember that day.


    • I will always remember it too. My mother had taken my sister and I to see ‘Love Me Tender’, after the movie we went to eat and saw the fire burning and ice crystals forming from the cold!!!!!! Was so sad!!!!!!!!


  2. Dennis,
    I don’t want to disagree but the St. Patrick’s St Anthony’s fire was after the fire at the Cathedral. I was a Hartford Firefighter at the time and worked at the St. Patrick-St. Anthony fire.
    Bob King
    Wethersfield, CT


  3. Eleanor, the basement ceiling collapsed, not the roof.
    The firemen were injured when that 1939, added ceiling came down
    due to fire between the floor of the nave, and basement ceiling.

    The roof burned off in the monumental flames, that erupted through
    the ceiling near the left front column, expolded down the nave while
    breaking through the roof.
    This fire process is throughly documented in Hartford Courant photos, (unpublished) and Aetna Life’s clear, (private) film documentation for insurance purposes.
    Keely’s, St. Patrick’s Church did burn 32 hrs., before the Cathedral.


  4. My Dad, also a Hartford Fireman in 1956, Joseph P. McSweegan was also there to fight the cathedral of St. Joseph fire in 1956.
    My Grandfather, was Hartford Fire Dept deputy Cheif, James P. McSweegan was at the Cathedral attending Mass that very same morning and helped to discover the fire…and rang the Fire Alarm…….


    • Both men were very close friends. Chief McSweegan a fine man for me to work with. i remember well.


      • Thank you Mr. King, My family and me appreciate your nice reply.
        Those were memorable times. How fortunate you are here to remember them….with us.


      • Joe , was a good friend and the boys ran often in Goodwin Park. We used to ki that your gradad never swore. ervery time that he got mad ,he would say dad gum it. He was an exceptionly good man to work under and seemed to treat me exceptionaly well. We had an old water tower that was gasoline & electric generator on each front wheel (similiar to tank treads. If a gen. cut out on one of the wheels it would turn in that direction. He wouldn’t help steer it 7 always said let King handle it alone. I could go on & on but i’m sorry to bother you with tyhis coversation. GREAT MEMORIES THANKS


      • No bother at All!! Thank you for remembering.Yes, Grandpa definitely had mild “swear” words as long as we knew him–tarnation was another favorite!
        Thank you for sharing with me, Mr. King….you are welcome to share your memories, anytime. Hope you are doing well.
        Thank you!!
        Sharon M. Gibson


  5. My father was a Hartford Fireman for many years and was at the cathedral fire. His name was Arthur J. Bouchard.He was a captain.It was a sad time for the catholics especially the firemen. They worked for days. I remember the Aetna opened their doors to the firemen so they could recoup and have a cup of coffee or hot soup.Where would I find pictures taken at this time?

    Diane Bouchard Dupuis


    • Diane, Did you graduate from Bulkeley High School, by chance?
      I graduated from B. in the in class of 1965…My Dad, also a Hartford fireman was there at the Cathedral Fire as well, Joseph P. McSweegan and my Grandfather too, James P. McSweegan.
      I believe my Dad spoke of yours……..

      Sharon McSweegan Gibson


    • I also was a Hartford Fighter and went to school with you. Your dad was my inspiration for joining the HFD.


  6. My grandfather was at Mass that morning and, along with others, smelled smoke. It was basically his parish church, as he and my grandmother lived on Willard Street at the time.


  7. são maneiras de reverter alguns desses fatores , reduzir a celulite e melhorar a nossa saúde em geral.
    Se você luta com celulite nas coxas , vagabundo, ou outras áreas específicas , específico e celulite alvejado
    exercício também pode ajudar a tonificar a área afetada e ajudando a quebrar o
    excesso de gordura e toxinas. É por isso que os defensores desta teoria
    sugerir vestindo tangas, ou se você está confortável o suficiente, dormindo nua .


  8. My younger brother, sister and I were classic latchkey kids living on the first block of Enfield St. in Hartford. We were on Xmas vacation listening to the Zenith that morning (cold and light snow) when we heard of a small fire at St. Joseph. I was the eldest at 14, and my brother and I were soon off and running down Enfield to Mather, to Vine, to Albany, to Sigourney and to The Cathedral. We set up shop pretty close to the right rear of the church (as you look toward The Aetna) and could observe several firemen through open windows of the Sacristy from which some smoke was coming out. Nothing much happened for a while, and then the firemen began rapidly exiting the Sacristy through the windows onto a sort of balcony/patio. Soon after, a great amount of flame began coming through the windows as the fire just erupted at the rear. We felt the heat and moved back with others. I think there was some kind of fence or obstruction which we had to jump. The fire then began to travel from the back to the front of the church pretty fast. I remember the sounds of glass breaking as the windows and bulbs let go. We could see some statuary through the windows, and it appeared that some melting of parts of the statues took place. The interior looked like a roaring oven kiln with solid flame. The flames were soon through the roof. At around this time, people began running from the rectory to the garage in the rear to remove several cars fearing a spread to that location. (At that time I think the the rectory was to the left of the church as viewed from Aetna with Ahern Funeral Home next door at the corner of Farmington and Sigourney.) The rest of the time we spent watching the fire go from front to back with a lot of smoke. We never went out front to Farmington Ave. and went home after a while. I don’t know how long we stayed there, but it was a good while. I remember the Holy Name Society from our parish (St. Michael,s) setting up round the clock watches at our church afterwards because St. Patrick’s had a major fire a few days before St. Joseph, and people were sure there was a church arsonist running around. Thanks for the opportunity to share some very old memories.


  9. I was nine years old at the time, that was my church. A very cold day, I remember.Never will I forget that day; a bad day for everyone…I entered the cathedral just two days after the fire with some friends from the neighborhood. It was like an ice palace, smell of burning wood,complete devestation a very sad moment. I left that day with the mass book I took from the podium. The book made it through the fire. After having the mass book for 63 years, I returned it back to the church this passed Easter Sunday 2019


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