December 1, 1958 is a date I will never forget. Our Lady of The Angels Catholic School, K1 to K 12, caught on fire in the late afternoon shortly before the dismissal bell. Ninety two beautiful young children and three Nuns lost their lives on that tragic day.
My two daughters at the time were four and one year old. My wife and I clutched them so hard for dear life they began to cry. We couldn't get the images of the fire out of our minds. They were printed in the Chicago Newspapers with details broadcast on the radio. Above all, one iconic picture of the tragedy appeared on the front page of every newspaper. Fireman Richard Scheidt carrying in his arm one of Gods fallen angels, the lifeless body of young John Jajkowski.
The reasons for the fire and how the children perished were talked about for weeks and days. Now, very few of us remember that disaster and wonder how it could have happened. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The fire raged for at least twenty to thirty minutes through the open staircase in a building that still had wooden interiors.
The school never had fire alarms or fire drills so the children could be taught the fundamentals of a fire and escape routes. The fact is until that day schools generally did not have safety drills.
They say something good comes out of tragedy. The laws were changed in the school system so that every school had a fire alarm and practiced fire drills for the students in the event of an emergency. Building codes were modified to help a fire from getting out of control as it did in Our Lady of Angels. To worsen the tragedy, the school bell for the close of the day would have rung in no more than thirty minutes. Investigators later learned that the fire began in a cardboard trash barrel in the basement.
Many years later one of the surviving students (her name was Maria) who had burns on her body applied for a position at the Northwest Community Hospital in Chicago. It was within the public relations department. As fate would have it, my late wife was the Director of the department and hired Maria on the spot.
She had aspired to become a Nun but never entered a convent. While talking to my wife she told her that she was one of the students that escaped from Our Lady of Angels on that tragic day. She only suffered minor burns but was scarred for life. Maria recalled in quite some detail her memories of the fire. A memory that my wife never forgot and always held Maria dear to her heart.
In 2005, a new Franciscan Priest arrived at the parish, Reverend Bob Lombardo. Through his work and dedication he led supporters to rebuild the site and is now home to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.
Today the newly renovated rectory was re-dedicated. The parish center has been completely rehabbed under a partnership forged by the mission with the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. The center provides after-school tutoring, sports, arts and other programs to some 900 neighborhood kids I pray it receives the public attention it deserves and the community will pour their hearts to the project. As a retired fund raiser (that's if we ever retire) should there be a fund drive to continue to operate the rectory, give what you can to this cause. We must not forget the fallen angels ever. God Bless our children.
This is one memory we should never forget.
(The Mission is located at 3808 W. Iowa)