by Christine Lorraine Morgan ~ June 23, 2020
Shuffling off to bed down the hallway toward his warm and cozy room, the tired priest 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 him 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 peek out of the hall window near his room.
Bewildered by what he saw, he was too stunned to move for the first couple of seconds. There were definitely flames dancing in the cold Pennsylvania night air, erupting through the rooftop of his beloved church.
Once he moved past the initial shock of absorbing that St. Michael’s Church was burning, there was but one driving force behind his next move. Clad in pajamas, robe and slippers, the priest dashed with the agility of a teenager out of the rectory’s back door, running across the adjoining yard toward the burning structure.
The Lord’s house was on fire!
The year was 1973, and the only type of telephone that existed was the old-fashioned dial-tone kind that connected to landlines. This left him no simple way to phone for help and rescue God’s earthly existence simultaneously. Thus the startled man of the cloth did the only thing he could think of under the circumstances.
He screamed, “HELP!” repeatedly at the top of his lungs as he sprinted through inky darkness, praying that a neighbor or good Samaritan would heed his urgent plea and telephone the fire department.
The heavy front doors were locked for the night and he had no idea where his keys were, but his presence of mind was powerful enough to recall that he had placed a spare key under a large rock that was hidden from public view. He flipped over the rock, found the key, unlocked the door, and hurried down the church’s main aisle toward the sanctuary.
The fire, which was starting to rage audibly as it spread rapidly across the polished wooden pews, was traveling more quickly than his 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 his exit route 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 window, the one 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 just been above him fell in and crashed to the church floor.
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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 that one of the priests at that holy place actually carried out the act described above.
“(He)…saved the tabernacle and jumped out of a window” local resident John William Mack states when he recalls the events surrounding the fire. And Mack is not the only one who remembers the courage of this brave priest.
Here are some additional facts and memories offered up by a group of people who reside now or previously lived in the Erie area. Details and quotes contained in this piece 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, recollects, “It was beautiful inside.” She adds, “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 Marino, 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 explains, “My uncle, Msgr. Latimer, was the pastor when the fire happened…It was caused by a boiler that overheated.”
Catherine McCarthy Walker notes, “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.
“Mom and uncles went to the grade school which was underneath the church,” reminisces Rita Serafini, who was baptized at St. Michael’s. “I used to peek at the students through the windows….I loved the summer festival.”
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 accumulated 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:
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