This aerial photograph shows the charred rubble is all that remains for much of the Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville after a Sunday morning fire ravaged the school. Credit: Courtesy of Steven Deschaine / Deschaine Digital

FRENCHVILLE, Maine — A fire that destroyed Dr. Levesque Elementary School was likely caused by electrical components in a wall between the gymnasium and the nurse’s office, according to investigators from the state fire marshal’s office.

A little more than a month before the coming school year, the fire has displaced 130 students, 10 full-time teachers and 10 additional staff, and has rendered the historic and award-winning elementary school a total loss.

The kindergarten and pre-K addition stands mostly intact at the Dr. Levesque elementary school, where a fire destroyed much of the school’s white wing. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

 The white wing of the building — which included the gymnasium and many of the school’s classrooms and offices — is destroyed. Built in 1964, key elements of its structure left the building vulnerable to fire. For one, the school did not have sprinklers nor any other building-wide fire suppression system since it was built before those features were required by law.

In addition, its double-pitched roof created a pocket of air in the attic for the fire to feed on, which Frenchville Fire Chief Peter Parent said contributed to the rapid spread of flames. During the blaze, firefighters destroyed the connection between the white wing and the rest of the school, preventing further spread and leaving the 1951 red wing and 1989 kindergarten addition standing.

The building had received yearly safety inspections from the Maine School Management Association, and was compliant with other requirements including stocking fire extinguishers and practicing regular fire drills, according to Superintendent Ben Sirois. At the time of the fire, he said there had been no plans to retrofit the building with fire suppression equipment.

On the same day the Dr. Levesque building was destroyed, sprinkler systems at the much newer Westbrook High School in southern Maine prevented the spread of an electrical fire, according to the Westbrook Fire Department.

An investigator from the state Fire Marshal’s office stands among the rubble of Dr. Levesque Elementary School. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

There are no certain plans for the coming school year, but Principal Cheryl Hallowell said the goal is to maintain the planned start date for classes, Sept. 9.

On Sunday night, Hallowell, Sirois and three other SAD 33 district administrators met in the St. John Valley Technology Center to talk through some initial ideas on how to house former Dr. Levesque School classes. Hallowell said the group circled a few potential ideas, including incorporating modular classrooms, but would discuss the matter in greater depth at a school board meeting on Wednesday.

The two-time blue ribbon winning school was both nationally recognized for its excellence and beloved in the community. Not only did teachers lose their classrooms, but also their supplies, decorations and mementos. 

For fifth-grade teacher Liza Pelletier, irreplaceable objects she collected over 22 years of teaching included ornaments and gifts from students, paper photos, and time capsules her students created they would open during their senior year. 

“That is the one that hurts the most,” Pelletier said. “I always debated on bringing them home but just thought they were safer at school.”

Originally known as Bailey School, Dr. Levesque Elementary School was renamed in 1973 after the late local physician Romeo Levesque, M.D.

Donna Levesque, who taught fourth grade there for 23 years, still lives in the St. Agatha home that doubled as her father’s office. 

The small country school that was Dr. Levesque’s namesake was the heart of the community.

“It might be different at the beginning but I’m sure the school will retain its value from before the fire and that they will continue the successful teaching they’ve done there,” Donna Levesque said.

A group of investigators sort through the rubble of Dr. Levesque Elementary School on Monday morning. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

Recently named State Board of Education Chair Fern Desjardins was on site at the fire Sunday. Desjardins served as an educator and principal at the school as well as SAD 33 superintendent for many years.

“It was heartbreaking to see the flames engulfing the building,” Desjardins said. “Former students, parents, grandparents, teachers and other staff members were also emotional about the little school that provided so much academically, socially and emotionally.”

Band and chorus educator Charles Michaud, who taught there for eight years, said instruments and other contents of the music room alone would cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace.

“Before the day was over, I had people offering their old instruments and requesting Amazon lists from teachers to replace what was lost,” he said. “This community spirit is one of the reasons I wanted to return here to raise my family.”

Michaud, who had been a student at Dr. Levesque, said special memories of the school can never be replaced.

“I will miss the smell of old books in the library, and I will miss the old handmade bookshelves in the classrooms and the old church pews in the gym,” he said. 

The fire has led to an outpouring of support from educators across the state as well. 

“Already we have received overwhelming support from universities, colleges, school districts, district/school leaders, and teachers across the state. It is amazing how supportive people are when a tragic event has happened in the community,” Sirois said.  “We are optimistic we can pull together for this community and their children.”

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.