Up in Smoke – 1957

By Denis LeDuc

Midmorning on Sept. 11, 1957, acrid black smoke rose above St. Peter Catholic Church, located in the second block of Market Street, just west of Gratiot Avenue in downtown Mount Clemens. The torches of workmen remodeling the historic building had sparked a devastating fire that quickly spread. In the dramatic photo above, the fire has already engulfed the church roof and steeple. The Mount Clemens Fire Department struggles alone against the blaze. Other responding fire departments have not yet arrived.

Notice the lone fireman atop the aerial ladder and another fireman atop the vintage fire engine. In the left foreground, behind the sign, two more firemen lean over what appears to be a fire hydrant as a citizen in a baseball cap looks on. Additional hose is coiled in the street, ready to be pressed into service.

The fire was devastating to St. Peter. The billowing smoke scattered ash over several blocks of the city and it threatened to spread to adjacent buildings, including historic St. Mary’s School next door. Only the valiant efforts of the Mount Clemens Fire Department, supported by fire departments as far away as Roseville, limited loss of the school to its third-floor auditorium. Sadly, the historic church itself was a complete loss.

St. Peter parish was first established in 1871 to accommodate the growing Catholic population of the greater Mount Clemens area. The parish began work on the church building in 1882 and dedicated the structure on Nov. 18, 1883, with Bishop Borgess of Detroit officiating. The Mount Clemens Monitor Leader described the church at the time as “the finest architectural ornament of Mount Clemens, a beautiful structure of stone and brick, built in a most substantial fashion.” Following the fire of 1957, the church was rebuilt and dedicated on Dec. 20, 1960.

The dramatic photo capturing the moment the church steeple toppled was taken by the Monitor Leader newspaper photographer Leo Walters.

Photos courtesy of the Macomb Daily archives.

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