Tragic Our Lady of the Angels School fire recalled 60 years later

By Chicago Catholic
Thursday, November 8, 2018

Monsignor William J. Gorman, fire department chaplain, anoints a victim of the fire on Dec. 1, 1958. (Chicago Catholic file photo)

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.

Today the church is home to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Bob Lombardo and a young 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 suffers incidents of violence.

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.

Sixty years after the fire, survivors and their loved ones continue to keep in touch and socialize, said Luciana Mordini, who was in seventh grade at Our Lady of the Angels when the fire struck.

Mordini, who prefers not to have her married name used, said more survivors have made contact with their former schoolmates even in the last 10 years.

“We’re finding people who didn’t want to talk about the fire before,” she said, adding that she recently met a survivor at her volunteer job in Arlington Heights.

But, she added, when the survivors get together, they don’t usually talk about the fire.

“We talk about our children and grandchildren,” she said. “Normal things.”

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 had come to Chicago from a small town in Italy about four years earlier, and it was a big adjustment.  By seventh grade, though, 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.

When the room started to get warm, the teacher, BVM Sister Mary St. Canice Lyng, 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.

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.

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.”

Mordini 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.

 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.

According to the website, Cardinal Cupich is scheduled to celebrate a memorial Mass at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, Iowa Street at Hamlin Avenue, at 2 p.m. Dec. 1, and there also will be a memorial Mass at 5 p.m. Dec. 2 at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road. Also on Dec. 1 at 10 a.m., there will be a presentation about the fire at the Robert Quinn Fire Academy, 558 W. Koven St.


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Our Lady of the Angels fire topic of new WTTW documentary

Twenty years ago, “Angels Too Soon,” a documentary produced by Jay Shefsky for WTTW’s “Chicago Stories” series, became one of the most sought-after works produced by the station. On Sept. 22, the newest season of “Chicago Stories” will begin with “Angels Too Soon: The School Fire of ’58,” produced by Peter Marks. The new documentary includes more footage from a documentary filmmaker who was riding with one of the fire crews on Dec. 1, 1958, as well as new interviews with survivors of the fire.