Our Lady of the Angels fire topic of new WTTW documentary

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Msgr. William J. Gorman, fire department chaplain, anoints a victim of the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School on Dec. 1, 1958. (Chicago Catholic file photo)

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.

The film will also be available at

The outline of the story is familiar to most Chicagoans: On that clear, cold December Monday, a fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels School at Iowa Avenue and Avers Street. It started in the basement of a stairwell and burned, unnoticed, for about 20 minutes before students and teachers on the second floor of the north wing noticed smoke coming in under their classroom doors just before dismissal time.

Within minutes, it was too late for anyone in those six classrooms to escape through the corridor. Some of the students jumped or fell from the windows; those in one classroom escaped after the maintenance man unlocked an emergency exit door.

But in the remaining five classrooms, 92 children and three Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary were killed. It was the third deadliest fire in Chicago’s history, behind the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It led to changes in school fire safety across the country, and no child has perished in a school fire in Chicago since then.

Marks said that it was important to revisit the fire now.

“Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Marks said. “I think it’s important to remember this chapter in Chicago history. It’s starting to fade from memory at 65 years.”

Survivors who might have been reluctant to speak about the fire in the past now want to share their stories, Marks said, especially those who lost loved ones. One of the survivors interviewed for the documentary is Ron Sarno, who escaped through a second-floor window. His sister, in the same classroom, died, as did his brother, in a neighboring classroom.

“He doesn’t want his siblings to be forgotten,” Marks said.

Bianca Lozano, who also worked on the film, is the daughter of Carlos Lozano, who survived the fire as a fourth grader. She used lists of survivors available online to find people willing to share their stories on camera.

Marks said he spent time looking for the original film shot the day of the fire; some clips were used in the 2003 documentary, but not all of it. It was eventually found in the vault of a fire museum, mislabeled as footage from the “Holy Family school fire.”

After the 16mm film footage was restored, Marks said, it drew a crowd when he watched it the first  time in the WTTW offices.

“At first it was just the two of us, but people kept stopping to watch,” he said.

Most of the 12 minutes of footage is in the documentary, along with the interviews of students who were there, reflecting on their experiences that day, in the immediate aftermath of the fire and as they moved on with their lives.

Among those students was Jonathan Cain, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 as a member of the group Journey. The fire was such a formative event in his life that he spoke of it in his induction speech.

Marks grew up on the North Side, and he said that before starting on the documentary, he was aware that the fire had happened, but he didn’t know the details.

“It was a privilege to tell the story of the survivors,” he said.

Many of them recalled the neighborhood around Our Lady of the Angels as a “kind of Eden” before the fire, Marks said, the place they will always think of as home, but it was destroyed by the fire.

Their stories made him more aware of how central the parish was in the mid-20th century.

“The importance of parish life, the way it was in the 1950s, it’s kind of faded from memory,” Marks said. “People identified where they were from by the parish, even people who weren’t Catholic. Now, when I’m driving down the street, I see what the Catholic presence in the city has been.”

Marks said he also wanted to dispel the myth that the nuns who were teaching on the second floor were to blame for the deaths of their students. They were faced with an almost impossible situation, where the fire was blocking the only way they had ever practiced leaving the school. In some of the classrooms, the teachers did try to keep students calm by leading them in prayer, but that wasn’t a meek acceptance of their fate.

“They were waiting for the fire department to come and rescue them,” Marks said. “When it became clear that it was going to be too late, they told kids to go out the windows.”

The sisters who died — Sister Mary St. Canice Lyng, Sister Mary Seraphica Kelley and Sister Mary Clare Therese Champagne — were found with children clinging to them or draped over the bodies of children they tried to protect, and, as Carlos Lozano says in the documentary, the nuns were heroes.

So was Father Joseph Ognibene, who helped rescue children, then was with parents identifying children at the morgue and then visited the injured in the hospital for weeks afterward.

Cain and the rest of the victims who spoke were reflective and very kind, Marks said, and they helped the film become more of a reflection on the scars left by the fire and the ways they have — and have not — healed than a snapshot of one day of horror.

“The documentary was ostensibly about the fire and the tragedy of it, but it turned into a meditation on courage, on faith, on the aging process,” Marks said. “We have a lot of photographs of people when they were kids, and they’re in their 70s now, and they are able to reflect back on them.”


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