Wednesday morning's fire in the steeple of the College Street Congregational Church was not the first major church fire in Burlington. Forty-two years ago, just three blocks down Bank Street, there was an inferno. It was the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. I was a young reporter covering the city of Burlington. I was downtown talking to a source at the gas station that stood on the corner where the KeyBank building is now. Suddenly, the station owner's eyes grew wide in shock. I turned around to see what he was looking at and we both saw smoke pouring out of the basement of the Cathedral church which stood nearby.
It was the afternoon of Feb. 15, 1971. An electrical malfunction in the basement of the Episcopal Cathedral had sparked the fire. Soon every truck and all off-duty firefighters responded to battle the blaze.
"Well, I got called in and it was really going good," William Sears recalled.
Sears is the only veteran of that fire still on the Burlington force, now as an inspector.
"Usually a church fire is a rough one to fight anyway, 'cause they're like a big stove; once they get going, it's all open area and you have all those varnishes and pews and all that stuff. It doesn't take long for 'em to go, so they're basically like an oven," Sears explained.
Tough for the firefighters and it was a tense time in the Queen City. Third alarm fires every few weeks and then 15 months after St. Paul's, another huge church fire. This time at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Seeing flames in the sky, the chief on duty that night called for a fourth alarm before any truck had left its station.
"Div, I don't know what you can say after a night like this, after what we've been through. It's just unbelievable. It's inconceivable this can happen," Burlington Fire Commissioner John Boardman told WCAX News in 1972.
The reason it did happen is because the fire was set by a young man, 22-year-old Timothy Austin, arrested as the fire was still raging. He confessed to a police officer, but then pleaded innocent by reason of insanity and was sent to the state hospital for treatment.
Reporter Marselis Parsons/1972: Just about 13 months ago, St. Paul's Cathedral, lying in ruins behind me, was destroyed in the first of several major fires in Burlington. The leaders of St. Paul's decided to rebuild in the urban renewal district just a few hundred yards down Cherry Street in Burlington.
The destruction of the two Gothic cathedrals brought change to their congregations. The churches were rebuilt in a much more modern architectural style. That generated some controversy, but the churches-- which now stand about a block or two apart on Cherry Street-- are symbols of renewal. And the fires certainly changed the landscape of the city.
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