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April 21. 2014 11:12PM

Claremont convent ravaged by fire to be razed

CLAREMONT — Demolition of the St. Mary Covent is set to start Tuesday morning after an early-morning fire on Sunday.

Late Monday afternoon, Claremont Fire Chief Rick Bergeron said the fire was about 99 percent extinguished. Firefighters were working with an excavator, who arrived Monday afternoon, he said. The excavator was pulling parts of the collapsed building away so firefighters could put out hot spots inside the walls of the old convent.

The building was insured, Bergeron said, and a representative from the insurance company assessed the scene Monday morning, so the excavator could start work.

“We still had hidden spot fires burning inside the masonry walls,” Bergeron said.

The excavator is set to return Tuesday to tear down the remaining structure and haul away the collapsed debris, he said.

Bergeron said he did not want to speculate on the cause of the fire, saying the state fire marshal’s office is leading the investigation into the cause. He expects a report of their finding to be released in the next day or so, he said.

A 911 call reporting the fire came from a Sullivan Street home.

The initial tone went out at 2:25 a.m. on Sunday, Bergeron said. The fire engine arrived on scene at 2:28 a.m. Five minutes later Bergeron arrived and said he knew right away the convent building was too far gone to save, but that the St. Mary School building — now the New England Classical Academy — next door, as close as 15 to 16 feet at some spots to the old convent, was in danger of catching fire.

“You could see the steam rolling off of the bricks,” Bergeron said of the school building. “There was no way that that building was going to be saved, the concern instantly moved to the next building.”

Firefighters were stationed on the roof of the school as well as all three floors of the school building to ensure a fire didn’t start. Fire crews also kept the exterior of the building cool.

“It was touch and go for a while as embers and ashes were dropping all over the neighborhood,” Bergeron said.

Within an hour of response, the roof of the convent had collapsed. It was rubber, but some parts of the roof were tin. Both materials provided cover and protection for the fire underneath, Bergeron said, “creating areas of hidden fires we’ve been dealing with for last 36 hours.”

No one was hurt in the fire, Bergeron said.

“That’s the good news,” he said. “The fact that we were able to prevent it from getting into the grammar school is the second piece of good news.”

The old convent building was built in the 1830s, but had not been used in years. The building, however, was important for its historic significance, Bergeron said. It was one of five Greek Revival style homes on Central Street.

“It was empty, but it was a building of historic significance. That was why it was still standing,” Bergeron said.

St. Mary School was the oldest Catholic school in the state when it closed in 2009. A high school affiliated with the school closed about 45 years ago.

The convent was assessed by the city of Claremont for $1.6 million and had been owned by the Diocese of Manchester since it assumed ownership from St. Mary Church in 1974.

The former St. Mary School buildings are home to New England Classical Academy, a private school for kindergarten through high school. However, New England Classical did not use the former convent, which had been vacant for many years.

mpierce@newstote.com


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