by Christine Lorraine Morgan ~ June 23, 2020 (Updated Feb. 3, 2023)
Shuffling off to bed down the hallway toward his warm and cozy room, Father Enright thought he caught a faint whiff of something burning. A nagging recollection that the church’s boiler had been acting up tugged at his weary mind and prevented the tired priest from hitting the slumber zone.
Even though he was completely exhausted from a long day of administering sacraments, celebrating Mass, and tending to various prayer requests, he opted to bypass his comfy bed temporarily and investigate. He wouldn’t be able to rest until he discovered the source of the faint burning odor.
As he approached the partially open door to the lower level where the boiler was located, a minor explosion blew the door completely open. Flames began licking through the doorway. The oppressive heat and smoke created by this sudden surge was nearly overwhelming.
Bewildered by what he saw, Father Enright was too stunned to move for the first couple of seconds. There was definitely a roaring fire working its way up the steps, to the first floor where so many holy artifacts sat, unprotected from such a devastating situation. And his colleague Monsignor Latimer was sleeping soundly upstairs!
Once he moved past the initial shock of absorbing that St. Michael’s Church was rapidly burning, there was but one driving force behind his next move. Clad in pajamas, robe and slippers, the priest dashed forward with the agility of a teenager.
The year was 1973, and the only type of telephone that existed was the old-fashioned dial-tone kind that connected to landlines, so there was no time to waste trying to get to a phone. Thus the startled man of the cloth did the only thing he could think of under the circumstances.
He scrambled across the hot floor to the other side of the room and grabbed the step ladder he stored behind the back door for odd chores. Father Enright opened the door, and ran as fast as his tired feet could carry him to the spot just below Monsignor Latimer’s window. As he climbed the ladder, he shouted “HELP” in case any neighbors might awaken and call the fire department, or venture outdoors to offer assistance.
After a moment of wondering who was knocking so excitedly on his window, a very groggy Monsignor Latimer appeared, discombobulated at the notion that his respected friend and fellow man of the cloth was the cause of this late-night disruption.
“THE CHURCH IS BURNING,” shouted Father Enright emphatically through the closed window. “OPEN THE WINDOW AND COME DOWN THE LADDER!”
The second he could see that his message was acknowledged by Monsignor Latimer, he scampered down the ladder to pursue his next quest. Father Enright heard the window open as he reached the ground and seconds afterward, the fatigued Monsignor gingerly found his way down the ladder to safety.
As he entered the burning church through the front door, the fire was starting to rage audibly as it spread rapidly across the polished wooden pews. The relentless flames were traveling more quickly than Father Enright’s overloaded brain could comprehend. It was of no consequence to him, though, because the subject of his quest was in view.
Lunging forward, oblivious to the heat and smoke, the father briskly swept the familiar blessed tabernacle off of the altar over which he had said Mass uncountable times. Once his hands had firmly secured this ornate breadbox-sized house of Christ, he realized that the fire was about to engulf the spot where he stood, and the main aisle he had just traversed was ablaze.
Numb with the force of his mission, the dazed priest realized that his exit route to the front door was no longer an option. He mustered up all of his courage and, through sheer force of will, ran straight into a tapestry of flames to reach the nearest port escape, the beautiful stained glass window next to the confessional booth.
Setting the tabernacle on the bench where he had listened to thousands of sins, he seized the hot metal window latch firmly with both hands and pushed it as wide open as he could, ignoring how burned the scorched palms of his hands felt.
He grabbed the Body of Christ and managed to hoist it while climbing out of the tall stained glass window, scrambling for his life. As his feet touched the cool ground outside, the burning roof that had been above him seconds ago fell in and crashed to the church floor.
“A story in the Erie Times chronicled how he found a ladder and got Msgr. Latimer out of the rectory and then entered the burning church and removed the Blessed Sacrament,” explained a priest from the Erie Diocese. “He took the Ciboria (the vessel containing the Hosts) to the St. Michael’s Convent chapel.”
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This rendition of what might have unfolded in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 1973 during the fire at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Erie, PA is historical fiction. However, those who attended that popular, thriving church will tell you about the brave priest who saved Monsignor Latimer and the Holy Eucarist.
“(He)…saved the tabernacle and jumped out of a window” local resident John William Mack stated upon recalling the events surrounding the fire. And Mack is not the only one who remembers the courage of this brave man of the church. The present-day priest with the Erie Diocese who helped us with this article offered more details.
“Following the fire, Fr. Enright moved into the rectory at St. Paul’s. Fr. Koos and Msgr. Latimer moved to the Cathedral rectory,” notes the priest. “Masses were held in the convent chapel for the parishioners until the spring of 1974, when it was decided that the parish would close. Sadly, the convent burned down 3 or 4 years later.”
As for the present status of land where St. Michael’s was located, “Now the property and the former vacant lot across the street, which at one time was to be the site for the new St. Michael’s School, has a number of Erie Housing Authority homes on it.”
Additional facts and memories are presented below. Some were contributed up by a group of people who reside now or previously lived in the Erie area. Details and quotes were cobbled together through a social media information collection project on this specific topic.
Based on addresses from the 1914 city directory, St. Michael’s Convent was at 611 W. 17th, St. Michael’s School was listed at 613 W. 17th St., and St. Michael’s Church was located in the heart of the City of Erie, at 617 W. 17th Street, on the south side of the street between Cherry and Poplar. All three structures are no longer there.
The interior of St. Michael’s was gorgeous, on par with the ornate design and architecture of the exterior, which is displayed on the postcard depicting what the church once looked like (see above).
One local woman, Kristen Spare, recollected, “It was beautiful inside. I sure remember the fire! It was a terrible shock for the neighborhood…that church was a huge part of life in that community!”
Church pastor was Msgr. Latimer. Other clergy who provided services at St. Michael’s over the years were Father Swartz, Father Fleckstein, Father Koos and Father Enright. The latter is remembered by Carm Villella as, “One of the greatest, most humble priests. A really good man!”
Area resident Susan Latimer Donahue explained, “My uncle, Msgr. Latimer, was the pastor when the fire happened…It was caused by a boiler that overheated.”
Catherine McCarthy Walker noted, “We lived on W. 21st between Cherry and Poplar and were directly in line with the church (I could see the steeple from our backyard). When the fire happened, the house filled with thick smoke so we spent the rest of the night at the neighbor’s house down the street.
“Needless to say it was a very terrifying and sad night. I was 8 years old at the time,” Walker added.
Some folks remember going to Scout meetings there, many were married in this historic church. Others will tell you about receiving their First Communion, enjoying festival rides, attending Catechism, or being a student at St. Michael’s School.
Father Enright poses with the First Communion group from 1962 in St. Michael’s Church. Photo submitted by Jeff Orlando.
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“Mom and uncles went to the grade school which was underneath the church,” reminisced Rita Serafini, who was baptized at St. Michael’s. “I used to peek at the students through the windows….I loved the summer festival.”
These two “colorized” photos offer a glimpse of what the interior of this stunning church looked like. Both photos were submitted by MaryJo Bambauer Newlon, and both are from her parents’ wedding in 1956 at St. Michael’s Church. When she submitted the pictures, MaryJo wrote: “My mom was Tressa Augustine of 615 W. 16th, my Dad, Eugene M. Bambauer … went to St. Michael school. Matron of honor was Frances Marucci, a 16th St. neighbor. Best man, Tony Maccharoni.”
Yes, the trio of bells at St. Michael’s had many reasons to peal back when it was a bustling, vibrant parish.
Those three gigantic church bells, which were acquired between 1855 and 1902, were among a handful of items salvaged after the fire. They presently serve as a beautiful centerpiece on the lawn at Saint Jude the Apostle Church, 2801 W. 6th Street, near the intersection of W. 6th and Peninsula Drive.
At least there remains a three-bell tower reminder of what once was a beautiful oasis of community cohesiveness in the heart of residential Erie.
Learn more about the bells of St. Michael’s at this website, which was contributed to this article by Scott Coyle: Bells
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NOTES: From the perspective of the author of this piece, I eagerly participated in the merriment of the St. Michael’s festival every year because it was in the neighborhood where my grandmother lived when I was a child growing up.
Even though I was in high school when St. Michael’s burned down, it was still a devastating loss to realize that a chunk of my fond childhood memories had gone up in smoke.
This piece was written as a tribute to my dad, Joe Frazzini, who recently passed away, because he was the one who took me to those festivals at St. Michael’s when I was a little girl.
Lastly, A big “Thank You” to these ERIE, PA friends who collectively helped to memorialize the precious place once known as St. Michael’s Church through the creation of this article:
MaryJo Bambauer Newlon
A Priest from the Erie Diocese
Karen Vitelli Schutte
Anna LaRiccia Fischer
Peggy Ann Moore
MaryJo Pernice Westcott
Joanne Scheloske Fredrychowski
Susan Latimer Donahue
John William Mack
Catherine McCarthy Walker
Frank Pork Carey
Paula Bell Lijewski
Peggy Ann Moore
Patty McLaughlin Bennett
Connie Knapp Emge
Frank Swashbuckler Broncasno
Tonya Renwick Sitler
Kathleen Kerr Bliss
Lynne Karle Wright
Laura Altadonna Oblich
Karen Fedei Dorich
Judy Jonsson Downing
I loved St. Michael’s and The Pieta’ in the back left, going out, stands out in my 82 yr. old mind. I remember Mary’s tears while she held Jesus close to her. That memory stays in my mind and heart, forever.
Thank you for posting this wonderful article on Saint Michael’s Church, Fr. Enright married us on Feb.23 1963 and our 4 children were baptized in this Holy Church!! Many great memories thank you St. Michael !!