Monday, December 1, 2008

It was 50 years ago Monday, that kids became statistics instead of lives

One summer when we were kids, my brother, Chris, and I spent about a week away from our parents and staying with our Uncle Sphinx and Aunt Connie, who lived in west suburban Lombard.

They had a pool in their backyard and allowed us to spend much of our time lounging around it, while also requiring some chores (such as cleaning out the basement where our aunt operated a makeshift beauty shop for neighborhood women).

BUT ONE OF the moments of that week that stands out in my mind (and the moment that my brother most remembers) is when Aunt Connie decided to take us with her on what she saw as an “educational” outing.

We took a drive to the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in nearby Hillside.

And the reason we went there on that day in 1978 was to see the “Shrine of the Holy Innocents” memorial that had been erected there to the children who died on this date 50 years ago at the Our Lady of the Angels School, 909 N. Avers Ave.
What would have become of these children? Illustration provided by

Now I had heard of the school fire previously. Occasionally, we’d see snippets of footage of smoke coming from school windows and some bodies being moved about, whenever early December would come up.

WHILE MY MOTHER remembers being in a Catholic school on the South Side when she learned of the fire (nuns quickly led her entire class in a prayer for the children at Our Lady of the Angels), for me, it was little more than an “anniversary story.”

Until that particular weekend with my aunt.

I recall her laying some flowers at the memorial, while also reciting some details of that day’s events to my brother and I, then driving home the point that life is not only precious, it also is temperamental.

It can come, and go, at any time.

IT DOESN’T EVEN have to be anyone’s particular fault that they were in a certain place when something bad happened.

So if it sounds like I’m saying people ought to treasure every moment they have, because they don’t know for sure how much longer they will live (personally, I could die tomorrow, or I could last another 50 or so years – I honestly don’t know what to expect), then it is a worthwhile lesson.

Besides, how many other people can claim to have learned a life’s lesson while visiting a cemetery with their aunt (who, sadly enough, I cannot share moments with any longer – she died this year during the summer)? It definitely is one of those stories I can tell that few people can match.

It also is a memory that has come to my mind because we’re on one of the so-called “significant” anniversaries to justify an “anniversary story” about Our Lady of the Angels.


WTTW-TV last week dredged up the “Angels Too Soon” documentary film about the fire and its aftermath. And I would expect news outlets throughout the Chicago area will be running stories throughout the day – reminding us of the fact that 92 children and three nuns have now been dead for half-a-century.

In the case of the kids, they have been gone for about four to five times longer than they were alive.

But when presented in such a manner, they can become mere statistics.

THAT IS WHY I dredged up the old Chicago American newspaper front page from “the day after,” which literally gives us the pictures of all the deceased children. It is a physical reminder that we are talking about living human beings.

Instead, they’re names engraved on a memorial at a Hillside cemetery that my brother and I checked out some 30 years ago.

So when some people will try to push the angle that the fire started in a stairwell would never have spread so fast if modern-day fire codes were in place, I’d argue that such an angle is kind of trivial.

The fact is that even contemporary fire codes would have had an effect – but the building was exempt because it was so old that city officials thought requiring the Catholic Archdiocese to pay to bring it up to standards would have been an undue financial burden.

SOME MAY EVEN get worked up over the fact that no one was ever successfully prosecuted for having done something wrong to start the fire. Maybe they dream that modern forensics could come up with some evidence that could lead to a criminal conviction.

But when I think back to that day at the memorial, and also look at a newspaper page with pictures, I can’t help but wonder what would have become of these kids – who by now would be pushing into senior citizen status.

They’d be looking back on their lives, trying to figure out just what it was they accomplished and could be proud of.

The fact that they never got to do so is the true tragedy of that day at Iowa Street and Avers Avenue.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Memories of that day on the West Side will live on, so long as ( the Internet remains in existence.

I’m not alone ( in having visited the memorial to the fire’s victims, although I did not document it to the degree that this website does. One can find help ( in locating the graves of specific people.

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