To Sleep with the Angels
by David Cowan and John Kuenster
Ivan R. Dee, 1996
[Challenge # 47 : Nonfiction on any subject.]
The 1958 Our Lady of the Angels Catholic school fire traumatized a generation of Catholic schoolchildren. To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire, by David Cowan and John Kuenster, brings this long-forgotten tragedy to life.
The authors tell the story as it unfolds, from the viewpoints of the participants, letting the victims of the tragedy – schoolchildren, parents, nurses, and clergy – speak for themselves. It’s a harrowing book that doesn’t sugarcoat. The fire took place in Chicago on December 1st, 1958 at the Our Lady of the Angels parochial school. The two buildings comprising the school were old and not up to the city’s 1958 fire code; however, a grandfather provision made them legal. The fire started near a basement stairwell in a trash can and quickly raced upstairs to the roof, ironically only minutes before the school was to let out for the day. The classrooms on the first floor were able to be evacuated, but the nuns and students upstairs were trapped as the fire filled the halls and stairways with thick black smoke before spreading to the roof. Many of the children were forced to jump from the windows onto the gravel and tarmac below.
Ninety children and three nuns died in the fire that day, which was most likely started by a student’s arson (the book makes a case that there was a cover-up by the city, the fire department, and the Catholic Church in not bringing charges against that student, who is not mentioned by name in the book.) The fire was made more deadly by a delayed response in sending the fire alarm, and afterwards it led to revisions in the fire code for all schools across the US.
The authors took a journalistic approach, which I liked… there was no bias and no agenda. The idea conveyed was that it was a tragedy all around with shared blame. The authors debunked a number of urban legends about the fire, such as the one where the nuns ordered the children to pray at their desks instead of trying to escape (not true, most of the children’s bodies were found by the windows) and another that fire department’s ladders were too short to reach the second story (also not true, the FD’s ladders were adequate.)
The most terrible aspect of all about the fire was that, in those times, it was earased. Those affected by it, no matter what their losses, and were expected to “get over it”… move on with their lives instead of dwelling, or as we say now, processing, their trauma. Despite the horrors of WWII, little more than a decade in the past, grief counseling did not exist, and neither did acknowledgement of PTSD. Only in the late 1980s did the event begin to be discussed openly as long-buried grief came to light. And the fire did more than scar survivors. It was the first step in the ruination of an entire close-knit neighborhood, as white flight out of the city and urban decay set in.
As a child in a Catholic school in New Jersey this fire was recounted to us by one of the nuns. I remember then thinking of how horrible it was and eying the distance from my school’s windows to the ground, imagining what it was like to land on the hard, gravel-studded asphalt that was used both as playground and church parking lot. These days, with many parishes on the decline or being consolidated, and Catholic schools suffering declining enrollment too, it’s hard to understand how so many children were packed into so unsafe a structure, filled with open stairwells, flammable wood and varnish, and tar paper roofs. But many Catholic schools, including the one I was in, really were built that way, though mine had been retrofitted with metal fire doors and alarms and extinguishers in easy reach. Fire drills were taken very seriously.
A very good peek into the past of a terrible event.