St. Vincent remembers devastating fire 50 years ago

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Fifty years later, it's the bitter cold temperatures and the ice that are frozen in the memories of those who fought and witnessed the devastating Jan. 28, 1963, fire at St. Vincent College. The blaze destroyed three buildings and would have caused more damage if not for the heroics of emergency personnel.

“It threatened the total destruction of our campus. The 400 firefighters risked their lives in adverse conditions. It made it possible for us to rebuild St. Vincent,” the Rev. Paul Taylor, executive vice president of St. Vincent College in Unity, told more than 300 emergency personnel, college officials and community leaders at a program on Monday marking the 50th anniversary of the fire that caused about $2 million in damage to the St. Vincent complex.

The college took the unusual step of honoring those who fought the fire and those who assisted at the scene, including The Salvation Army, state police and the American Red Cross. Representatives from 31 fire departments and hose companies that fought the blaze were recognized at the Fred Rogers Center on campus.

Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, who was a high school senior at St. Vincent Preparatory School, said the college and seminary wanted to recognize those who had done so much for St. Vincent that day.

“It's our expression of gratitude to the current people who risk their lives,” said Nowicki, who recalled being alerted to leave a study hall and go outside because the school biology lab was on fire.

“Within about an hour, you could see the roof on fire and the bell tower. The fire was going quite strong,” said Nowicki, then a 17-year-old student from South Greensburg.

Two of the firefighters who led the efforts, retired Latrobe fire Chief Earl Dalton and Greensburg fire Chief Edward Hutchinson, were honored with the college's Presidential Medal of Honor, bestowed on them by Brother Norman Hipps, president of St. Vincent College.

Of Dalton's leadership at the fire scene, Hipps said “he directed the efforts which brought the fire under control and saved St. Vincent.”

Hipps praised Hutchinson, who is in his 60th year as Greensburg's fire chief.

“Without his leadership and efforts, our losses would have been much greater,” Hipps said.

Both fire chiefs “had great respect for each other,” Nowicki said.

The fire that began in the biology room left a quadrangle of buildings on campus that were extensively damaged or destroyed. The college biology building, the 128-foot bell tower and the top floor of Benedict Hall were burned out, as was the old student chapel built in 1835.

The top floor of Benedict Hall was burned out, and much of the second floor was damaged. The top floor of the monastery was destroyed, and lower floors were rendered uninhabitable. The rooms housing almost 100 Benedictines, priests, clerics and brothers were destroyed, according to the Catholic Accent, official paper of the Greensburg Catholic Diocese.

The St. Vincent Basilica, which serves as a parish church, sustained extensive smoke and water damage, as did the choir chapel and monastic refectory.

Firefighters mounted an effort to save the choir chapel and prevent the fire from spreading to the church, Nowicki said.

“They fought the battle in that area,” Nowicki said.

Hutchinson concurred.

“We mainly fought to save the basilica,” said Hutchinson, who recalled going to an aid station during the fire for a “shot of whisky” to ward off the bitter cold.

“It took all day to kill it (the fire),” Hutchinson said.

A Tribune-Review article published two days after the blaze said that the firefighters were able to stop the fire from spreading beyond four burning buildings.

“It had raged through classrooms, living quarters, a chapel and various offices ... It had destroyed buildings in which monks, priests and lay students had lived and learned since 1846.”

The fire not only set the stage for the rebuilding of the campus, but “it brought St. Vincent a lot closer to the communities. The experience itself brought the (St. Vincent) community together,” Nowicki said.

“There is a sense of responsibility to welcome the local communities,” Nowicki said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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