I want to preface my remarks with a few words of gratitude.
Thanks to David Cowan and John Kuenster for writing a memorable account of the OLA fire. You have performed a service of greater value than you might know.
Thanks to the webmaster for putting this site up. May it continue to foster healing, provide information and unite those whose lives bear the scars of the OLA fire.
And heartfelt thanks to those who have written here, especially the survivors as well as the family and friends of those who perished. It is living testament to the victims of the OLA fire.
On the day of the fire, I was a 2nd grader at S. S. Peter and Paul school at 123rd and Emerald on Chicagoís far south side. Though I remember nothing of that particular day, I have been haunted by its events to this day. I donít remember being anything of a collector, but for some reason, I began to put together a scrapbook of articles and pictures from the OLA fire. My family thought it was a morbid activity. Being just 7, I guess I couldnít explain why it affected me so deeply.
I think that there are two explanations. I have lived in Minnesota for over thirty years, but I canít seem to get across to folks here what it was like to attend Catholic schools in Chicago and be a part of that Catholic community. Though it may sound simplistic, all of us were truly one big family. We had the common experiences of the teaching nuns, the New World newspaper, the Cardinal and all the other things that made us an insular unit, albeit a very large one. In some ways, that insular community fostered a bit of an ďus and themĒ perspective. I have never experienced that oneness with any other organization since. Maybe it was because so many of us were immigrants or immigrantsí children and the Catholic Church was our beacon in the hardscrabble lives many led. On December 1, 1958, that community was grievously wounded. Word of the fire spread to all neighborhoods and parishes with electric speed. All of us, young and old, devout or not, wept with horror at the tragedy and at the loss to our family.
I am on my second reading of "To Sleep With the Angels," having recently picked up another copy in a local bookstore. After all these years, I think I understand why the OLA fire haunted me so. As some other writers have written, their school buildings had some commonalities with OLA. My school, S. S. Peter and Paul, may not have been identical to OLA, but it was darned close.
Before a new church was built in 1959, the church was in the bottom half of a building that looked like a twin to the OLA north wing. A brick and concrete addition had been added on to the side of the original building. Classrooms were upstairs. These were the same classrooms that my father attended school in. Brick on the outside, but all wood on the inside. Dark and narrow hallways hung with winter coats. One staircase at the front of the building. Transoms over the doors. Huge classroom windows, more than twenty feet above the ground. High windowsills with radiators in front. Flat, tarred roof. I have gooseflesh as I write this. I was in one of those rooms. My young mind knew that if a fire happened in my second floor classroom, the outcome would be strikingly similar to the tragedy at OLA.
I didnít put this together until now. Perhaps I can now lay the OLA tragedy to rest too.