Looking back at the fire of 1861

By Jennifer Neal

CHARLESTON—On Dec. 11, 1861, a small fire blazed out of control on Hasell Street, engulfing a large portion of the peninsula.

A powerful wind contributed to the burning of many homes, businesses, churches, and public halls along East Bay, State, Church, Meeting, and King streets, leaving part of the city in ruins for many years.

The Charleston Mercury reported the conflagration as a “night of terror and disaster.”

Among the destruction was the Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar on the corner of Broad and Friend (Legare) streets.

Other buildings destroyed included the clergy and Bishop’s quarters; the St. John the Baptist Seminary library, which contained many of John England’s original manuscripts; the office of the United States Catholic Miscellany; and the hall of the Catholic Institute. St. Mary’s Free School for Girls, which was operated by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, was also demolished.

The wall on Broad Street and the former gatehouse of the 1834 Ursuline Convent are all that remain today of the pre-1861 structures.

Bishop Patrick N. Lynch received numerous letters of condolence and donations from all over the country.

A “Southern Relief Fund” was established to rebuild the city, but it would be many years before restoration was completed.

In conjunction with the Civil War, the fire devastated the Diocese of Charleston, and it was not until after Bishop Lynch’s death in 1882 that construction began on the present Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

No photographs of the Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar exist prior to the 1861 fire and only a handful of haunting images of the church’s ruins, taken in 1865, remain.

To see those images and more information about the fire’s impact on the diocese, visit the Archives Office website exhibit at http://archives.catholic-doc.org/index.php/exhibits/2011/77-the-fire-of-1861.