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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958

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The Mystery of Sister Helaine

Sister Mary Helaine O'Neill, eighth grade teacher in room 211, was critically burned before escaping the inferno in room 211. Numerous news outlets reported on her injuries and lengthy hospital stay.

But newspapers in June 1959 started reporting a surprising story about Sister Helaine's activities during the fire.

The Milwaukee Journal carried the following story on June 13, 1959, under a photograph of Sister Helaine.

A heroic nun who helped more than 50 children to safety in the tragic fire at Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago last December, was honored as the "citizen of the year" at the Illinois state convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Sister Mary Helaine, who made a bridge of her body over a flaming stairwell, was presented at the meeting in Springfield Friday.

Another story in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, June 28, 1959:

Springfield, Ill. - A nun who saved 23 children in the Chicago school fire, by having them crawl across her body to safety, was honored by the Illinois Veterans of Foreign Wars as their Citizen of the Year.

The citation said that the nun first brought her own class down from the school's second floor to safety; then made three more trips up the flaming stairwell. "On her last trip," it was recorded, "the stairwell was burned away from the flooring, leaving a large gap over the inferno. Yet this brave nun placed her frail body across this gap so that 23 other children could crawl over her body and thus beat certain death."

Sister Mary Helaine, who was a teacher in Our Lady of the Angels School, suffered severe burns in her heroic action. She has undergone some 50 skin grating operations. She still is not fully recovered.

And yet another story:

Sister Mary Helaine, a nun critically burned in the Our Lady of the Angels school fire Dec. 1, will receive the Illinois Veterans of Foreign Wars "citizen of the year" award Friday in Springfield.

Nominated for the award by the VFW's Police post, Sister Helaine, 56, was hospitalized for several months after the fire. She since has been resting at Mount Carmel, in the house of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, near Dubuque, Ia.

Of the award, Sister Helaine said, simply, "It is not just for myself. It is for all the sisters." She said she had no recollection of what happened in the school on the day of the fire. Twenty-four pupils in her room on the second floor of the building were killed.

The question is, how did these astonishing and heroic actions on the part of Sister Helaine escape the notice of the news media, and everyone else, in December, 1958? One story states that she

“first brought her own class down from the school's second floor to safety”

This is clearly not the case since 24 students perished in her second floor classroom.

Nowhere in news reports in the days and weeks after the fire is there any mention of students crawling across a teacher's body over a flaming gap in a stairwell. In fact, had any students from the north wing second floor classrooms actually made it to a stairwell, the death toll would have been much lower. The death toll was high precisely because the fire trapped students and teachers in their north wing second floor classrooms, preventing them from reaching the stairways.

Perhaps Sister Helaine, the faculty member most seriously injured in the fire, was chosen to be honored, as she suggested, as representing all the Sisters who risked their lives that day saving children. In any case, the origin of such wild stories as students crawling across Sister Helaine's body over a flaming stairway remains a mystery.