LAWRENCE — Firefighters spent hours Monday night battling a stubborn blaze in a historic Catholic Church on Essex Street.

A four-alarm blaze broke out in the rectory of Corpus Christi Parish at Holy Rosary Church around 6:20 p.m.

There was heavy fire in the rectory area, with flames heading towards the church roof.

Fire Chief Brian Moriarty ordered an exterior attack, meaning firefighters could not immediately enter the building to battle the blaze.

No immediate injuries were reported and church pastor, the Rev. Francis Mawn, was unharmed, according to Lawrence police.

Around 7:30 p.m., it appeared the fire was under control, with firefighters inside overhauling and searching for hot spots.

In minutes the fire flared again, with flames jumping through the roof. Firefighters were again ordered to evacuate the building and fight the fire from the outside.

Lawrence firefighters were assisted by a hearty contingent of mutual aid firefighters from cities and towns throughout the region, including Andover, North Andover, Lowell, Haverhill, Methuen, Danvers, Middleton, Salem, New Hampshire, Billerica, Reading and North Reading.

A variety of inspectors were immediately called to the scene. Electricity was also cut in the area after the fire flared up on the roof.

Holy Rosary Church was founded by Italian immigrants in 1904. In the '60s, it embraced the first Cubans to arrive in Lawrence, and later other Hispanic communities, according to the church's website.

In November 2004, the Archdiocese of Boston established Corpus Christi Parish by uniting Holy Rosary and three other churches — Holy Trinity, St. Francis and Sts. Peter and Paul.

The church is the backbone of the annual Feast of the Three Saints in Lawrence and beloved to many throughout the Merrimack Valley who have attended Masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals and more there.

"I cannot overstate the importance of this church to the Italian immigrant families of the Merrimack Valley. Everyone in the Merrimack Valley has a connection to this church. God speed," said Christine Albert, a former Salem, New Hampshire resident, in a tweet.

Another long time parishioner, Dan Roche, a WBZ anchor who lives in Andover, echoed similar sentiments on Twitter

"Been going there for 25 years. Had family First Communions, Christmas Masses, funerals. So many good people. My wife's grandparents lived across the street," he wrote.

Across social media platforms, Eagle-Tribune readers recalled the church as the wedding place of their parents and grandparents.

"I can't stop crying," wrote Patricia Mariano, a longtime parishioner.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

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