While most people see the weekend after Thanksgiving as a time to begin preparations for the December holiday season, this time of year is a painful reminder to some as the anniversary of one of Chicago's deadliest fires. Ninety-two students and three nuns died in a December 1, 1958 blaze at Our Lady of the Angels school, which was located on the West Side at Hamlin and Iowa streets. A series of tragic and controversial errors — a fire safety code that legally allowed the school to have ineffective systems for preventing or reporting fires, a delay in alerting the Chicago Fire Department (which was initially sent to the wrong address), and an uncontrollable fire in a dangerously overcrowded and aging building — culminated in a tragic event that became known all over the world.
While many of the students in other parts of the school were safely evacuated, classrooms on the second floor of the building were wrapped in thick blankets of smoke and fire. Students desperate for air had few options in those rooms, most of which lacked viable fire exits: jump to the concrete sidewalk 25 feet below (most who jumped suffered broken bones; one later died from head injuries), or worse, wait for help. Survivors who were eventually rescued would later recount that as they were trapped in their classrooms and losing hope, they began praying at their desks. Dead children were later found stacked on top of each other, fighting for space beneath the high-placed windows. Many bodies could only be identified using dental records.
The fire lasted about two hours from discovery to being fully extinguished, but in that time the face of a close-knit community of Italian, German, Polish and Irish immigrants was forever changed as they all searched for answers as to why this tragedy happened, and how to go forward in their faith despite the huge loss of life and scores of injured children left in the fire's wake. A flurry of legislation to update fire safety codes in buildings followed; as a result, schools all over the country benefited from the Our Lady of the Angels fire, despite its horrific nature.
The cause of the Our Lady of the Angels fire remains undetermined to this day, although a former student admitted in 1962 to setting the fire. Despite the fact that his confession corroborated details privately known only to investigators, the student later recanted what he told police, and the case was dismissed by a Cicero judge. The community was outraged by the decision, concluding that the Chicago Archdiocese and Fire Department was involved in a cover-up to protect their reputations and to downplay liability.
Everyone blamed someone for causing the fire, but few could dispute the heroic measures of the teaching staff at Our Lady of the Angels, the majority of which were nuns from the Iowa-based Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) order. Despite the quick thinking of many nuns who lead students to safety, three BVM nuns were in less fortunate circumstances in their second-floor classrooms. Sister Clare Therese Champagne, a 27-year-old New Orleans native (and rumored former Mardi Gras queen) who taught fifth grade, along with Sister Seraphica Kelley, a 43-year-old Chicago native who taught fourth grade, and Sister Mary St. Canice Lyng, 44, also a native Chicagoan who taught seventh grade, perished in the fire along with many of their students.
Suellen Hoy's moving article "Stunned with Sorrow" captures the experiences of the BVM nuns in the Our Lady of the Angels school on that fateful day, and how the tragedy changed their lives and their faith. You can download the article in its entirety in PDF format, or read it below.
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Much has been written about the Our Lady of the Angels fire. David Cowan and John Kuenster's pivotal book "To Sleep with the Angels" (Ivan R. Dee, 1996) is a very informative account. Kuenster recently published a newer book on the fire, "Remembrances of the Angels: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective on the Fire No One Can Forget (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). "The Fire that Will Not Die" (ETC, 2004) was written by Michele McBride, a survivor who suffered permanent injuries. An online community of survivors, OLAFire.com, provides a wealth of information and archival photography and news articles, along with a message board that often serves as a support for those affected by the fire. WTTW's Chicago Stories series produced a documentary about the fire in 2003.
Photos courtesy of olafire.com. Special thanks to the Chicago History Museum for permission to republish Suellen Hoy's article.