Remembering La Salette’s tragic loss 15 years later

By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — During this month of November when the faithful are asked to remember all the souls in purgatory who have passed on, the close-knit La Salette Shrine community in Attleboro is offering a special prayer for the soul of a dear, departed priest who lost his life in a tragic fire on the shrine grounds 15 years ago.

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Capuchin Father Michael O’Brien, a visiting priest from Wales who was staying at the former Provincial House on the shrine property, was killed when the building was destroyed in a tragic fire in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 1999.

A memorial blog posting has been set up via La Salette’s website asking people to remember Father O’Brien in their prayers and as a tribute to the century-old stone structure — more commonly known as “The Castle” — that once graced the western portion of the Attleboro shrine property.

An email sent from the shrine on the 15th anniversary of the devastation read, in part:

“Nov. 5, 2014 brings to our hearts the memory of that tragic night back in 1999 — the terrible fiery flames destroying a life and a lifelong facility of peace and rest to many whom had passed through those awesome doors of our peace-filled Castle.

“Let us all remember the soul of Father Michael O’Brien and all souls in this month of the Holy Souls.”

The email then provided a link to the following blog page:

The memorial tribute offers photos of the conflagration and its aftermath, a link to a YouTube video of local TV coverage, and several newspaper articles, including front-page coverage from the Nov. 12, 1999 edition of The Anchor entitled, “Priest killed in La Salette fire.”

According to The Anchor report, Father O’Brien, 43, was trapped inside his third-floor bedroom when the quick-spreading fire broke out shortly after 4 a.m. He had been on sabbatical since October 10 and was staying at the provincial headquarters that once served as a seminary for the La Salette priests.

An estimated 25 others who had occupied the building at the time of the blaze survived.

Father André Patenaude — La Salette’s famed “singing priest,” better known as “Father Pat” — was one person who called The Castle his home for more than a decade. He recalled running out of the burning building that night in press reports.

“I heard someone scream, ‘Fire!’ When I got out of my room, I smelled smoke,” he told one newspaper. “I just can’t believe the whole thing is gone. It’s just devastating.”

Looking back on that night 15 years ago, Father Pat recently shared his thoughts with The Anchor.

“I never thought I would ever see this impressive building tragically and slowly burn from room to room, including my own,” he said. “I managed to exit the building with the clothes on my back, leaving behind a favorite guitar of mine. The whole devastating event has left a heavy feeling in my heart ever since. Something just seems to be missing on the spot where The Castle on the hill once occupied. Nothing could ever replace the spirit that once enveloped that historic structure.”

According to La Salette business manager Richard Eyman in the 1999 Anchor article, despite the severe damage caused by the fire, amazingly the Blessed Sacrament inside the chapel’s Tabernacle was not harmed and was retrieved.

“When we went inside the chapel after the fire, remarkably, the Sanctuary lamp was still burning,” Eyman was quoted as saying.

“I prayed that God would protect the Tabernacle where the Most Blessed Sacrament was present,” said Fatima Bigda, current secretary to the shrine directors. “I believe it was this Tabernacle that saved the chapel with Our Lady’s help. Actually, the interior of The Castle’s chapel survived with just smoke damage! That’s a miracle!”

In fact, a wood-carved statue of Our Lady of La Salette that was once inside The Castle’s chapel survived unscathed and is now prominently displayed inside the shrine’s main church, on the left side of the altar on the way into the Reconciliation Chapel, according to Bigda.

“We now only have ashes as a reminder of this tragedy and the beautiful miracles of Our Lady’s presence through her statues,” she said.

The Castle actually predated the Missionaries of La Salette’s arrival in Attleboro in 1942, when they purchased the large piece of property consisting of mostly wetlands off Route 118. The 300,000-square-foot stone structure was built in 1903 and once had been the Attleboro Springs Sanitarium, then later was the Solomon Sanitarium — a place of rest, retreat and healing.

Initially used as a seminary for the La Salette order, it was later used primarily for retreats, extended sabbaticals, youth outings and other shrine events.

The Castle also housed a school and served as the Missionaries of La Salette’s provincial office, housing all of its records, library and archives.

“We are grateful for everyone who helped us during this tragedy,” Bigda said. “We really were so blessed with so many memories of the La Salette Castle.”

As if heeding Christ’s Words that He “make all things new,” the Missionaries of La Salette and their landmark Attleboro shrine have managed to not only survive but thrive in the years following the 1999 tragedy.

A new $2.5 million shrine church, which began construction a year before the blaze, was completed shortly thereafter; and in 2007 a new visitor’s center including a 600-seat auditorium was added to the complex.

Renovations continue to enhance the 135-acre shrine property and it remains a popular destination this time of year for its annual Christmas lights display, which first began in 1953.

While the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette is best known as an iconic destination for worshippers who come to see the annual Christmas display from Thanksgiving weekend through New Years, it has also become a key venue for events and programs throughout the year that help them renew their religious faith.

In a statement released by then-Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap., in the Nov. 12, 1999 edition of The Anchor, he said:

“Though the landmark Provincial House is gone, let us remember that the true beauty of the La Salette Shrine is not in the buildings, but rather in the presence of God one finds there and the hope He rekindles.”

Even 15 years later, it would seem that God remains ever-present within the confines of La Salette Shrine and its community.

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