Chicagoland

Our Lady of the Angels School fire never forgotten

By Chicago Catholic
September 6, 2017

Our Lady of the Angels Fire never forgotten

Ninety-five people — 92 students and three teaching nuns — died in the fire that rampaged through the second floor of the north wing of the Our Lady of the Angels School near Hamlin and Chicago avenues, on Dec. 1, 1958.
A large crowd gathered to watch Chicago firefighters fight the flames at Our Lady of the Angels School on Dec. 1, 1958. (Chicago Catholic file photo)
A priest blesses a fire victim while Chicago firefighters look on. (Chicago Catholic file photo)
Archbishop Meyer visits Lucy Mardine, survivor of Our Lady of the Angels fire. With him are Sister H. Alumnda, P.H. J.C., administrator of St. Anne hospital, and Father Richard J. Birmingham, hospital chaplain. The Dec.1, 1958, fire at Our Lady of the Angels School, Chicago, killed 92 students and three BVM sisters, all teachers in the school. It led to changes in fire codes for schools and other public buildings and permanently changed those affected by it, its neighborhood and the city of Chicago. (Chicago Catholic file photo)
Over 7,000 packed Northwest Armory for children's requiem Mass in which Archbishop Albert G. Meyer officiated. Twenty-seven white coffins lined up before a temporary altar. Individual funerals were held at a later date. (Chicago Catholic file photo)
Accompanied by Msgr. Francis McElligott, archdiocesan director of cemeteries, Bishop Hillinger blesses caskets at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. (Chicago Catholic file photo)
Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Kate O’Leary distributes food during the monthly food give-away at Our Lady of the Angels Mission on Oct. 3, 2015. The mission operates a food pantry and various outreach efforts in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, which often sees incidents of violence. For more, visit missionola.com. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Ninety-five people — 92 students and three teaching nuns — died in the fire that rampaged through the second floor of the north wing of the Our Lady of the Angels School near Hamlin and Chicago avenues, on Dec. 1, 1958. 

The tragedy, painstakingly documented in the book “To Sleep with the Angels” by David Cowan and John Kuenster and the subject of many magazine articles, books and films, led to reforms in the fire code for schools across the country and dramatic changes in school construction and fire-alarm systems in Chicago.

The fire dominated the New World  pages then, and the paper has remembered anniversaries ever since. Today the school remains closed but the church is home to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Bob Lombardo and a young, flourishing religious community, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist Chicago. 

They operate a food pantry and various outreach efforts in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, which often sees incidents of violence. Chicago Catholic has frequently reported on their ministry.

More than bricks and mortar were affected back in 1958. The people of the parish, especially the hundreds of students who were in the school, its surrounding neighborhood and the whole city still bear the marks of the fire.

Luciana Mordini was in seventh grade on the afternoon of Dec. 1, 1958, sitting near the back of Room 208 at Our Lady of the Angels School.

She came to the United States with her parents about four years earlier, coming from a small town in Italy with a one-room schoolhouse. Her Chicago neighborhood, with its parochial school of 1,600 children, was a lot to get used to.

But things were looking up in seventh grade. She liked her teacher, Sister Mary St. Canice Lyng, and hung around with other kids. Life was starting to feel normal.

Then, on that cold afternoon, everything changed, she told Chicago Catholic in 2008 on the 50th anniversary of the fire.

The room started to get warm. The teacher told some of the boys to open the door to check the hallway, but they couldn’t open it. “It didn’t take 20 seconds for the smoke to fill the room,” said Mordini.

She and the other students knew already that there could be no escape through the hallway, and Sister Canice told the students to stay calm at their desks and pray.

“I thought, ‘I’m not doing that,’ and I went to the window,” said Mordini, who isn’t sure how many students followed her example because the smoke was too thick for her to see.

She sat on the windowsill and dangled her legs outside. She did not see any firefighters. To this day, she doesn’t think she jumped. “I’m just not the kind of person who would do that,” she said. “I truly believe someone pushed me.”

If someone did, he or she probably saved her life. She broke her fall on the roof of a shed under her classroom window before tumbling to the ground. She did not suffer serious injuries from the fall, but third-degree burns on her right arm kept her in the hospital until Christmas Eve that year.

“Some man came and got me and drove me to the hospital,” she said.

Mordini returned to classes in March 1959 at Our Lady Help of Christians School, which had taken in Our Lady of the Angels students while their new school was under construction. The new school opened the year after she graduated.

“I don’t blame the church. I don’t blame the school. I blame the person who did this. In my mind, I can’t see why it would be anyone else’s fault. You can’t blame someone unless they struck the match. I don’t even blame the nuns because they said, ‘Stay here,’ because that was how they were taught. I don’t think anything could have been done in those particular rooms unless the fire department got there sooner, or unless the ladders were longer.”

Room 208, which had 13 injured and 10 dead, including Sister Canice (whose body was found draped over a pile of dead pupils, evidence of her futile attempt to shield the children from the flames, according to “To Sleep With the Angels”), did not suffer the same level of casualties as some other classrooms on the second floor of the north wing of the school. Room 210, next door, had 30 dead and 15 injured; Room 212 had 28 dead and 21 injured. In Room 211, across the hall, 25 were killed and 17 injured. Two classrooms on that floor — rooms 209 and 207 — suffered lighter casualties, with two killed and eight injured in Room 209, and none killed and one injured in Room 207, which had access to the only fire escape.

No students on the school’s first floor or in the south wing were hurt. Many thought the fire alarm, when it finally went off, signaled a fire drill instead of an actual emergency.

Topics:

  • 125th anniversary
  • ola fire

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