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Priest Injured, Historic Building Destroyed in Townsend Church Rectory Fire

“It’s hard to describe it in a word. It’s heartbreaking," Historic District Committee Chair Alicia Struthers said

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A priest was injured trying to put out flames that destroyed an historic building in Townsend, Massachusetts, during the early hours of Monday morning.

Now just a charred shell of what it used to be, community members lamented the loss of the rectory at the St. John the Evangelist Church, located in the town's historic district at 20 Highland Street.

“It’s hard to describe it in a word. It’s heartbreaking," Historic District Committee Chair Alicia Struthers said. “We here in Townsend cherish our historic buildings. It’s what gives the ambiance of Townsend.”

Crews from nearby towns including Fitchburg, Pepperell and Ashby were on scene for more than five hours putting out the multi-alarm blaze, which broke out just before 2 a.m. Monday, according to Townsend Fire Chief Mark Boynton.

Father Jeremy St. Martin tried to extinguish the fire himself, burning his hands in the process.

“He heard the smoke detectors, went downstairs, attempted to put out the fire with an extinguisher," Boynton said. "He was unsuccessful - burned his hands in the process.”

"I had no words," said Nancy Loudon. "I was just concerned about him [St. Martin]. Wanted to know that he got out alright."

St. Martin was conscious when firefighters arrived, according to Townsend Deputy Fire Chief Gary Sheppard, and has since been treated and released from the hospital. Fire officials said he is in "good condition."

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People in town say they woke up to a disaster Monday morning.

"I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and went outside and of course smelled it and heard the sirens and all that going on," Eric Johnson said.

"I have been to more weddings, funerals and baptisms in St. John's than I can even tell you but it's very sad but I'm very glad Father Jeremy is okay," London said.

St. Martin is doing okay as he rests, but he is shaken up, according to Chuck Kelly, a deacon at the church.

"Second degree burns on the hands so he's all bandaged up, watching those blisters, making sure they don't get infected," Kelly said of the priest's injuries.

Kelly is praising the community for their support after St. Martin lost everything in the devastating fire. He says someone even brought St. Martin a wallet with cash in it after his burned.

"He lost his phone, his wallet," Kelly said. "He went to bed a priest, woke up a firefighter. He's putting out the fire until it just got tot he point where he couldn't do anything further."

While the community is sad that the rectory was gutted by the fire, everyone is just thankful that St. Martin is okay. They're hoping despite his burns that he will still be able to celebrate Christmas mass.

“We’re really grateful for what we consider to really be a Christmas miracle,” Kelly said. 

A Massachusetts priest was injured early Monday morning trying to douse flames that destroyed a historic church in Townsend.

But the entire building does need to be demolished.

“It’s such a shame to see such a glorious building go up in flames the way that it did," retired firefighter Bill Biswanger said as he stopped by to bring water for some of his former colleagues and get a look at the damage.

"It’s just something when everybody goes by it, everybody looks at it because it’s such a beautiful building," Biswanger said.

The rectory is a historic building in town, known as the old Fessenden mansion. It was built by a prominent family in town and is more than 100 years old.

“This is a very, very sad loss for the community," Struthers added. “The Fessenden name is a very historic Townsend name and it’s quite old. The Fessenden Mansion at one point and now it’s just a heartbreaking very sad loss.”

It’s also the primary offices for the church where luckily the sacramental records were saved in a safe.

"The good news is that those were all able to be saved, so the skeleton key was the last thing to come out of the building,” Kelly said. 

No one else was inside when the fire broke out, officials said, and no other injuries were reported.

The fire went to four alarms but there was no way firefighters could save the building; it will have to be torn down.

The state fire marshals office is investigating the cause of this fire. 

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