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

Personal Experiences with Our Lady of the Angels School Fire

If you have a personal experience, recollection or opinion about the December 1, 1958 Our Lady of the Angels school fire, whether you were present at the fire or not, you can relate it here. Any story or information is welcome as long as it relates to Our Lady of the Angels school fire.
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Posted by: Wayne Kellner On: 2/7/2003 ID: 45
Enrolled on 12/1/58? Present on 12/1/58? Injured? Age Grade Classroom Teacher
Yes Yes No 10 5 206 Ms. Tristano
My name is Wayne Kellner. My brother Jim and I attended OLA and were survivors of the fire. We lived with our parents at 629 N. Lawndale. A cousin of mine, Cheryl McLean, was also a student and escaped the fire. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade in 1958. I was a student in Room 206 and Ms. Tristano was the teacher. On the day of the fire, I was sent down to the basement along with another student from Room 206, a prime candidate for having started the fire, to empty garbage pails. I knew this student pretty well and had seen him light matches in apartment buildings prior to the date of the fire. In fact, after the fire, I presented an account of what I knew about this person to the people taking statements from the students. I'll never forget the student's name. Whether or not he was guilty, I'm not the one to judge him, but I do know that he did not return to the classroom when I did that day, that there was no fire in the basement of the school during the time I was in the basement of the school and that the fire was noticed shortly after this student returned to the classroom. In the OLA fire website, I read that this student was exonerated from wrongdoing by the courts. I lost many dear friends in the fire and I pray the judge did his job properly. If he didn't, his actions have probably already been judged by the highest authority.

Posted by: Paul S On: 2/7/2003 ID: 44
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Evergreen and California (Humboldt Park)
I was a 3rd grader at St Fidelis at the time of this fire. St Fidelis is a parish a couple miles east of OLA. While my recollections of that time are somewhat vague, I do recall the somber mood of my parents, and the sudden emphasis on fire drills. I also graduated from St John Berchmans (on Logan Blvd) in 1965.

Some years later I became very good friends (we still talk, though infrequently) with a man who lost his sister in the OLA tragedy. I want to tell him of this website, but am of two minds regarding this. After reading the stories left by others, the most poignant comment was "I wish I had never heard of this site".

I hardly want to dredge up past pain for a very good friend, but also feel that he may experience some catharsis by visiting this site. I do know that the ONLY conversation about OLA we ever had was quite short lived.

Any input on this matter would be appreciated. Please email me at PAVEL9991@msn.com

I found myself close to tears often, as I know very well the sense of community that existed in Chicago parishes at that time. I have many fond (and some not so fond) memories of going to Catholic grammar schools. For any community to experience a cataclysmic loss such as this is beyond comprehension to me. I can have empathy, but in no way can I imagine the terrible sense of loss and disruption of family life that must have occurred.

All my best to the families and survivors of the OLA fire, I will keep you in my prayers.


Posted by: jflynn On: 2/7/2003 ID: 43
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No After n/a
I am in search of some kind of an understanding into how the OLA parish neighborhood could have deteriorated into what it has become.Perhaps some ex-residents of the neighborhood would be willing to explain what they experienced and remember. After reading the book years ago, more sorrow was encountered after driving down to the old neighborhood from my suburban home. The description of the community painted it back then as a wonderful area with hard-working blue collar people that enjoyed a common strenghth: the family. Thank you. nhlcbh1@aol.com

Posted by: John McTigue On: 2/6/2003 ID: 42
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Oak Park, Illinois
I was 9 years old the day of the fire... and I was in the 4th grade at Ascension, a Catholic School in Oak Park. I had stayed after school to learn Latin, because they were beginnng to train some of us as altar boys. One of the nuns came in and told us that there was a terrible fire at OLA. Most Oak Parkers were transplanted from the West Side , and as a result,we all had friends whose relatives lived in the city parishes.Everyone knew someone from OLA, HOC, St Lucy's, St. Angela's, Res, etc. (I had originally been from Resurrection at Laramie & Jackson, not too far from OLA .)

I went home, and heard the news reports on the radio about the fire, and like most people, I was very stunned. My grandmother and mother and dad were all West Siders, and you just knew they'd know someone involved.My mom had been educated by the BVM's, and knew some of the teachers.

Around 6:45 my father came home. He was a Chicago policeman, assigned to Fillmore, and his patrol area was around Central Park and Washington, only 5 or 6 blocks from the school. (Even though he was a Chicago cop, we lived in Oak Park, and he used his sister's Chicago address.) What I remember most was that as soon as he came through the door, you could smell the smoke on him, and he looked grimy. My mother asked him if he had been there, and he began to weep. I never saw him do that at any other time in my life. I recall him saying that Buddy McBride's daughter was horribly injured. (Buddy was Michelle's dad, and apparently a childhood friend of my dad's.)

He never said anything more about the fire, other than that it was terrible. (He was a typical Chicago cop.... drinking problem and hardass exterior..... which meant he was a boiling cauldron.)Based on the Cowan book, I think he may have been the policeman who was flagged down by one of the parents, a fellow who owned a tailor shop near Pulaski & Madison... the location and time elements match. So I'm pretty sure he was there about the same time as the fire trucks rolled up. I don't know, but I'm guessing he was there for the worst of it.

Monsignor McManus, the Superintendent of Schools, lived at Ascension, and I recall that for years afterward, he seemed a different man. When I would serve Mass for him, he didn't joke around with us, like the other priests,and I remember being told by our nuns not to ever ask him about the fire.

Looking at this website, and the class picture, I realize how similar our classroom building was to OLA... even the kids look the same. (Palomar Studios took ALL the class picture fr the Archdiocese... all from the same angle.)I think the notion 'that could have been me' sticks with all of us who went to Catholic schools on the West Side.

I think of those children and nuns often, and always make it a point to visit the Holy Innocents part of Queen of Heaven whenever I go there.

My heart goes out to all involved. To those who perished, to those who were injured, to the parents, and to those who saw it, and could only clean up the aftermath.God bless them all. What an incredible tragedy.

Posted by: Bob D. On: 2/6/2003 ID: 41
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Ferdinand & Ridgeway
I was 12 years old and attended Ryerson Elementary school, but I took catechism classes at OLA every Wednesday. After school that day, my friends and I walked to OLA to see what was going on. From where we were standing at the south side of the building, we could not see any fire or kids, so we thought it was something minor. We actually joked about not having to go to catechism class, then went home. Later, I heard what was happening on the radio. I knew a few of the kids who survived, but none of the ones who were killed. My most vivid memory was seeing the survivors around the neighborhood for years later who were burned and had scars, a constant reminder of the tragedy.

Posted by: Paul M On: 2/6/2003 ID: 40
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before 2211 E. 67th Street, Chicago 49, Illinois
I went to O'Keeffe School, in the South Shore neighborhood. Many of the students were Irish Catholic, and many were Jewish. The teachers were primarily Irish. I was in First Grade at the time, and I remember the stories of how the nuns told the kids to hold hands on the stairs (FALSE) and how only 3 nuns died with over 90 kids (MISLEADING). For the next few weeks, according to my Mom, I had nightmares about school fires, and kids caught in the fire.

The thought that a fire could happen in an old school caused fire drills almost weekly in CPS schools that year, I found out later. I just remember fire drills all the time, and going outside by the doors near the kindergarten room. O'Keeffe had the same old wooden stairwells, window frames and floors, covered with decades of "spar" varnish. Many of my friends went to St.Philip Neri on 72nd - they were told similar stories of horror, and memorial masses were said for all the victims. I read the excellent book by Mr. Cowan, and lent it to a friend, never to be seen again. I will watch and record the documentary tonight, and hit the library for the book this weekend. I also mention in my prayers the victims of the fire each year on the Sabbath closest to December 1.

Posted by: Dennis On: 2/6/2003 ID: 39
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Chicago 46th & South Damen
I was in the 2nd grade at Hedges school in the back-of-the-yards neighborhood when this happened. I remember that even though we were a public school, we were led in prayer by our teacher the next day. I remember the shocking (for a 7 yr. old) pictures in the papers with all the white sheeted bodies, burn victims, & finally, coffin lined church service. I also recall within a very short time, having fire walls, & other safety devices installed at our school. Even though I was not a part of this school, I always felt a kinship with the victims since I was attending Chicago grade school at the time. I can't imagine what the families of these victims have gone through all these years, but may God in his mercy bless them every day.

Posted by: Donna On: 2/6/2003 ID: 38
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Drake & Augusta, Chicago
OLA was my parish. I went to catechism there from 2nd to 10th grades. Although I was only 7 years old at the time of the fire, I can remember the old school, the smell of the varnish on the wood and a little bit of the stairwells. But I'll never forget that day when I came home from Cameron Elementary School and found my mom outside. There was a lot of commotion on our block (the 1000 block of Drake Ave) and mothers were running up and down the sidewalk. My mom said she had heard that there was a fire at OLA school. The only person I knew who went there was an older girl who lived on the corner. Later I heard that she got out okay. I don't remember much of the aftermath at the church, but I know after the fire our pastor, Monsignor Cussen, was never the same and blamed himself for the tragedy. After the fire, the third floor of Cameron became classrooms for some of the children and nuns of OLA until the new school was built. We were bused to a nearby Catholic school for catechism. Every December 1st our church had a memorial mass. I heard there was a mother of one of the children who perished who used to never leave her house every December because of the grief she suffered. Also, there was a boy who apparently had jumped from the school and incurred brain damage. I would see him walking around the neighborhood, but he suffered from palsy after that. Years later, my brother married a girl from the "old neighborhood" whose sister died in Room 212. Ironically, my sister-in-law also has a cousin who attended OLA, but wasn't at school that day because she was sick. Otherwise, she might have perished too. To this day, we try not to talk about the fire in the presence of my brother's mother-in-law. I mentioned the Channel 11 program to him, but I don't think his wife or her mother will be watching. It's just too painful. But her picture is displayed in the mother's house - I think it's of her in her communion or confirmation gown - taken just before the fire. While my family didn't suffer directly from this tragedy, we still grieve for the neighbors and friends who lost loved ones.

Posted by: Audrey On: 2/5/2003 ID: 37
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before 842 N Central park
I had graduated from OLA in 1956 but had a younger brother and five cousins attending the school. I was riding home from St Mary High School when I noticed fire engines, ambulances and police cars racing up and down Chicago Ave as far west as Western Ave. I knew something horrific was happening just from the volume of emergency vehicles and slowness of traffic trying to move west. It seemed forever when the bus finally arrived at Central Park. My brother was sitting in the dark living room all alone when I asked him what was happening. He explained that there was a fire at the school and our Mother and neigbor, Betty Anglim, were out looking for her son, Bobby. I ran to the school to see if I could find Mom, but there were so many people and fire engines, hoses, smoke, ladders, children crying and firemen racing everywhere that I felt so overwhelmed and helpless and went back home. I remember it was so cold. Later that evening we were told Bobby Anglim had perished in the fire and my Mom and Betty were at the morgue. The rest of the days that followed were those of funerals and visiting grieving families. My cousin had to jump from the second floor and broke his arm which required being pinned together. I'll never forget that day.

Posted by: Len On: 2/5/2003 ID: 36
At OLA on 12/1/58? Born before or after 12/1/58? Where Lived on 12/1/58?
No Before Monticello & Ohio St.
I was 4 yrs old when the OLA fire occured. I would have attended Our Lady of the Angels the following year, however, the new building was still under construction. I attended Ryerson Public School instead. Later I attended religion classes at OLA every Wednesday. We'd walk from Ryerson to OLA in groups along with students from Cameron Public School.

I can still remember the helicopters flying over my house and the constant sounds of fire truck sirens. My parents owned a neighborhood grocery store at that time. My Father began receiving requests by our neighbors to drive them to the school where their children attended. My parents decided to close the store and help out all they can. I remember standing on a corner on Avers as I watch the firefighters fight the smoke and blaze. People all around me were crying and screaming and I remember the look in my parents eyes and the tears they both shed the day my father took in the grim task of driving some of the families to the Illinois Armory at North & Kedzie. After all he was not only a grocer but a neighbor and friend. He sent boxes of food to many of the families in the area.

My father and mother are still alive today. 83 and 76 yrs old respectively. When I told them about this web site, both of then just hesitated for a moment. It has been almost 45 years and they still remember that day and the weeks and months soon after. I brought back a dark memory in their lives when I told them about this web site. Although we did not lose a family member in this tragedy my parents still feel as though they have.

We wish to thank you for this website. The Our Lady of the Angels fire should never be forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers to the victim's and their families.

We lost some good neighbors and friends and gained so many Angels. God Bless them all.