1956: Unholy Terror | By Chris Baud | The Trentonian

In 1956, a devastating fire at St. Mary’s Cathedral on North Warren Street claimed the lives of three people and caused $3.5 million worth of damage.

The tragedy also set off one of the most complex and intriguing whodunit mysteries and courtroom dramas in Trenton history.

It all started during a heavy rainstorm in the early hours of March 14.

Twenty-five city and suburban firefighters battled 100-foot flames at St. Mary's, which had stood as the seat of power for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton since 1871.

The fire started in the first-floor reception room of the rectory at approximately 4:30 a.m., and quickly spread to the upper floors.

The Rev. Monsignor Richard T. Crean [pictured left], and two housekeepers, Mary Louella Donnellan and Mary Brennan, were killed in the fire.

"I woke up at 4:30 in the morning from the sound of glass exploding," said William Fitzgerald, now monsignor at Our Lady of Good Counsel on Upper Ferry Road.

"I went over to the door of my room, and I could see light under my door. I thought Monsignor Crean must have left the light on. The whole hall was full of flames."

Fitzgerald tried to use the phone, but the lines were already burnt out. He next tried the intercom, but got no answer.

Finally, he decided he had to save himself.

"There was a back stairs going down to the kitchen in my room, and I went down that way, out to Chancery Lane. By the time I got around to the front on North Warren Street, they had taken Monsignor [Joseph] O’Connor to the hospital."

O'Connor had jumped into a net raised by the firemen, but he landed feet first, fracturing his spine. He's worn a brace ever since.

Two other priests, the Rev. Francis McGuinness and the Rev. Pete Mooney, escaped with minor injuries.

Of the housemaids, only Vera Dizeins, who sat on an air conditioner facing North Warren Street, survived.

The body of Monsignor Crean, vicar general under Bishop George Ahr, wasn’t found until late in the day. He had died trying to reach the landing going up to the third floor.

Firemen believed Crean was overcome by smoke attempting to wake the priests and housemaids.

Bishop Ahr held services for Monsignor Crean on Monday, March 19, at St. Anthony's Church on South Olden Avenue. St. Mary's would not reopen until 1958, but only the first Sunday's service was missed, as the parish held Mass at the school's gymnasium.

Related Links:

Larger picture of the 1956 fire

Historical information about the fire from the Lawrence Road Fire Company History