Hurricane of ’38 took its toll in northeast, Fall River Diocese

By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor

WESTPORT, Mass. — Earlier this month, residents across the Diocese of Fall River, particularly those living in coastal areas, breathed a sigh of relief as once-Hurricane Hermine whisked past the region inflicting far less damage than had been feared.

Residents of the same areas, several generations removed, weren’t so fortunate, when, on Sept. 21, 1938, the diocese was devastate by “The Great Hurricane,” that roared through New England, leaving behind a tragic path of death and destruction.

After the winds died down, the sea returned to its rightful domain, and the rains ceased, 69 folks in Southeastern Massachusetts lost their lives and thousands more were left homeless or lost a majority of their possessions.

One priest, Father George Jowdy, pastor of the Maronite Our Lady of Purgatory Parish in New Bedford, was killed when he was washed away by the storm surge at the summer home of his nephew at Sconticut Neck in Fairhaven.

St. Mary’s Church in New Bedford sustained irreparable damage; the monumental spires of Notre Dame Church in Fall River sustained heavy damage; and St. Rose of Lima Chapel, a mission of St. John the Baptist Parish in Westport, located on East Beach near Horseneck Beach in that town, was destroyed. A large section of the skeleton of the chapel was found one-quarter of a mile away from its original site.

Ruth Hurley, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River, was a teen-ager at the time. Her uncle was then-Father Patrick H. Hurley, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in 1938.

“I remember the chapel being completely destroyed,” Hurley told The Anchor. “My uncle told me that the chapel had shut down for the season the day before the hurricane. He said he removed the Blessed Sacrament from the chapel, and he was so glad he was able to do that before it was destroyed.

“It was his first pastorate, so I’m sure he was devastated by the loss.”

The massive storm caused about $5 million in damages in Southeastern Massachusetts, including $100,000 of diocesan losses, with the six-plus inches of rain, the 120-mile-per-hour winds, and the deadly storm surge.

Coastal homes throughout the diocese were leveled or destroyed, even as far inland as Fall River, where several homes on Atlantic Avenue in that city were washed away.

In all, the Hurricane of ’38 killed nearly 800 people and caused about $300 million in damage (nearly $5 billion by today’s standards), in New Jersey, New York and New England.

In an age where the Weather Channel was something not even of science fiction, the storm caused such a large loss of life because it came so quickly and without warning.

The storm was spawned, as are many Atlantic hurricanes, off the western coast of Africa, near the Cape Verde Islands, on September 9. It meandered its way westward across the Atlantic gathering strength on its journey.

According to today’s weather designations, the hurricane reached a category five stage, the highest level on the Saffin-Simpson Hurricane Scale used by meteorologists.

On September 21, 12 days after its birth, the hurricane ceased its westward path and began an extremely rapid northern trek, reaching a speed of about 70 miles per hour, which amazes today’s storm experts.

The poor souls in the Diocese of Fall River region had no idea what was on the way.

A book published by St. Mary’s Parish in New Bedford in 1988, commemorating the blessing and opening of the current St. Mary’s Church building on Tarkiln Hill Road, contained an account of that fateful day:

The Standard-Times [the New Bedford daily newspaper] had no news on the approaching storm, “No sense of alarm or warning of impending danger.

“On page two, the tiny-print weather forecast, if one bothered to read it, was for rain and cooler with shifting southeast gales off the coast. Further, ‘a tropical disturbance northeast of Cape Hatteras [North Carolina] with maximum wind velocity of 56 MPH ... the center moving rapidly northeastward off the coast.’

“The proceeding hours were filled with the drama of unleashed natural forces, countless small heroics, and accounts of death and rescue as the storm raged.”

Weather experts report that the unusually rapid speed of the hurricane’s northern trek, made the winds on its east side even more powerful. Southeastern Massachusetts was on the eastern side of the eye.

Between noon and 2 p.m. conditions deteriorated, but people still had no idea what was about to be unleashed.

According to reports, the hurricane made landfall on Long Island, N.Y. between 2 and 2:30 p.m. as a category three storm with maximum sustained winds of 120 MPH.

The St. Mary’s Parish commemoration book said, “The most destructive hurricane had reached winds of 100 MPH and had struck with such suddenness that those who lost their lives could not have escaped.

“In our parish, the church building was toppled and caved in.”

The book also reports that the then-pastor, Father Thomas Taylor, was away at the time, and that a young altar boy of the parish was sent by his mother to “crawl under the demolished church to recover the Blessed Sacrament and Sacred vessels and take them to the rectory until a priest came to remove them to another church.”

“Bearing Fruit By Streams of Water: A History of the Diocese of Fall River,” by Msgr. Barry W. Wall, indicated that “the cost of lowering the damaged spires of Notre Dame Church in Fall River would be $25,000.”

It took St. Mary’s Parish years to recover. Its commemoration book said, “After the remains of the church were cleared away, only the foundation, overgrown with weeds, stood as a reminder of a once-vital parish.

“The faithful attended Mass for a while at Motta’s Hall or St. Kilian’s and the French-speaking people transferred to St. Theresa’s. St. Mary’s Parish was disbanded in 1939 and would remain in limbo for the next 14 years.”

In 1953, ground was broken on a new St. Mary’s Church building, on the site of the destroyed one.

St. Rose of Lima Chapel, dedicated by Bishop James E. Cassidy on July 3, 1932, which once bustled with summer vacationers to the Horseneck Beach area, was never rebuilt.

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