Fire Guts Former Convent; Firefighters’ Fast Action Saves School in Claremont

  • Fire capt. Jim Chamberlain of the Claremont Fire Department aims a hose at a corner of the former St. Mary Convent that was still smoldering about nine hours after the fire was reported in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. The vacant building lies adjacent to New England Classical Academy, which firefighters worked to protect from heat and embers. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Fire capt. Jim Chamberlain of the Claremont Fire Department aims a hose at a corner of the former St. Mary Convent that was still smoldering about nine hours after the fire was reported in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. The vacant building lies adjacent to New England Classical Academy, which firefighters worked to protect from heat and embers. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • An early morning fire gutted the former St. Mary Convent on Central Street in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    An early morning fire gutted the former St. Mary Convent on Central Street in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Firefighter Jonathan Whelan of the Claremont Fire Department pulls a hose into position at the former St. Mary Convent in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Firefighter Jonathan Whelan of the Claremont Fire Department pulls a hose into position at the former St. Mary Convent in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Fire capt. Jim Chamberlain of the Claremont Fire Department aims a hose at a corner of the former St. Mary Convent that was still smoldering about nine hours after the fire was reported in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. The vacant building lies adjacent to New England Classical Academy, which firefighters worked to protect from heat and embers. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • An early morning fire gutted the former St. Mary Convent on Central Street in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Firefighter Jonathan Whelan of the Claremont Fire Department pulls a hose into position at the former St. Mary Convent in Claremont, N.H., on April 20, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

Claremont — An early morning fire destroyed the vacant St. Mary Convent building on Central Street Sunday, but quick action by firefighters prevented the flames from spreading to the New England Classical Academy, a mere 15 feet away.

“It was close,” said Claremont Fire Chief Rick Bergeron regarding the proximity of the flames to the school, which is less than 20 feet away at the closest point. “That was our priority focus, to get a line in operation between the convent and the school and get water on the school building to keep it from lighting up.”

The call came in around 2:30 a.m.; and Bergeron said the convent was fully engulfed when firefighters arrived at the scene.

“It was really going,” the chief said at the scene later Sunday morning, while a ladder truck continued pouring water through the collapsed roof of the gutted three-story brick structure. “Our biggest issue was not only the threat to the school but also homes from flaming embers.”

Firefighters were positioned on the roof of the school to prevent any embers from catching fire. The absence of windows on the side of the school closest to the fire worked to their advantage, Bergeron said.

Bergeron said the state fire marshal’s office is working on the investigation with the fire and police departments. He said the cause remains under investigation, and it won’t be until today at earliest before they can get a closer look.

Mario Enzler, headmaster of the academy commonly known as NECA, said Sunday evening that he was relieved to know the school building was not damaged.

“We want to emphasize how we are so grateful to the firefighters for protecting the school building,” said Enzler.

Students have one more day of spring break before classes are scheduled to resume Tuesday.

“People have been in the building and (no damage) happened inside,” Enzler said.

St. Mary Parish Council President Vic Bergeron said some windows “rippled” from the heat, but none were broken.

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon Sunday, firefighters sprayed water on the building to put out hot spots as smoke billowed up from the smoldering remains. Debris from the fire covered the paved area between the convent and school and some of it had washed down the hill onto a grass area in front of the convent.

“It is a sad thing,” said the Reverend Shawn Therrien, pastor of St. Mary, after an Easter Sunday mass in the church directly across the street from the nearly 180-year-old convent. “Kudos to all in the fire department. They were magnificent.”

Bergeron, the fire chief, said firefighters would likely remain at the scene into Sunday night.

“Because the way the building collapsed into itself, it is still burning and there are a number of hot spots in the floor assemblies,” Bergeron said. “We have people there going around the building about every hour. We basically have to babysit it.”

The chief said once firefighters can safely enter the building, they will be able to “see what lies beneath the floors and get some indication where it started and how.”

The parking lots usually used by St. Mary parishioners were closed off, adding to the vehicles lining Central Street by churchgoers attending Easter services at both St. Mary and the Grace River Baptist Church, which is next door. Some opted to use the city’s parking garage down the street.

Vic Bergeron received a call about the fire from Therrien not long after the fire department arrived. He said the building is insured by the diocese. The first thing is to check the condition of the school building, particularly the roof, which is rubber and more susceptible to catching fire, he said.

“We want to be sure there is no damage,” Bergeron said. “That was our first concern, but except from some smoke and a few windows, I don’t see anything wrong with the school.” He said they will further assess the condition of the school today.

NECA, which is not affiliated with the Catholic diocese, moved into the school building in July 2009 from Keene after St. Mary grammar school closed at the end of that school year.

The convent was last occupied around 2007 by the Claremont Soup Kitchen in the rear first floor and the St. Mary Chapel in the front. The parish shut down the building to save money on heating and electricity.

In June 2012 vandals, later identified as juveniles, broke into the building and caused several hundred thousand dollars in damage to all three floors. After that incident, Vic Bergeron said the parish was ordered to board up the building because of the presence of asbestos. The building had plywood on all the doors and the windows were all locked, he said.

“Once (fire officials) turn it back over to us, we will probably board up the first floor doors and windows,” Bergeron said.

The fire chief said the building will need to be demolished.

Lisa Ray and Marisa Florence, whose grandchildren attend the school, were among those who arrived throughout the morning and stood on the sidewalk behind a fence watching firefighters hose down hot spots.

“I was kind of worried,” said Florence, who said she came down to be sure no one was hurt and the school was intact.

Ray said it is devastating to see the convent burn, but is thankful the school was not damaged.

“I don’t know what I would have done (for a school),” Ray said,

The convent is one of four buildings that were constructed as private homes in the 1830s, according to a 2003 article in SooNipi Magazine by Charles Fletcher, of Claremont. Built in Greek revival style, the buildings were noteworthy for the four tall white columns in the front and were considered “the finest and most expensive homes within 50 miles,” Fletcher wrote, quoting Otis Waite’s 1894 History of Claremont. The original owners were prominent Claremont citizens, including businessman Simeon Ide, lawyer Charles Putnam and Henry Russell, the first superintendent of Mondadnock Mills, according to Fletcher.

St. Mary began acquiring the buildings in the late 1880s, about 15 years after the church was constructed in 1870. One of the buildings, which has since been torn down, served as St. Mary High School and another, the parish rectory, which remains today. The former convent, which closed decades ago, and NECA are the other two.

Besides Claremont, the Newport, Cornish and Ascutney fire departments responded to the scene with Windsor, Springfield, Vt., and Charlestown providing cover trucks for the other stations.

Patrick O’Grady can be rea ched at pogclmt@gmail.com.