Tuesday, December 1, 2020


     Most Jews in the Holocaust went to their deaths without resistance. They didn't fight. They did what they were told, and were killed. They weren't angels or martyrs, but regular people with all the excellences and flaws that regular people have. There was only one Anne Frank. It was a gigantic, mind-boggling, irredeemable tragedy that, people being people, we nevertheless keep trying to grasp and redeem. Maybe that's natural.
    Over the span of my lifetime, it seems like it's only gotten worse. Not the Holocaust; the sugarcoating. We've began remembering the enormity of the thing, with the isolated instances of resistance serving as tiny moments of relief. Then gradually the horror faded, crowded out by the relief, which almost took over. It became a kind of ennobling story, an entertainment, which it shouldn't be. 
    I point this out as prelude, having read a piece in today's Tribune to mark the 62nd anniversary of the Our Lady of the Angels school fire, an inferno that killed 92 students and three nuns. To be fair, "Then & Now" isn't really intended to recapitulate the events of the fire, but to update what the order of nuns are doing now. That's interesting, and I have no complaint, as far as that goes. I like nuns. The Catholic church does much good that should be recounted.
    My bone of contention is the complete gloss the fire itself is given. The first fact we learn is that it was "a tragedy that revolutionized fire codes around the world." Pretty to think so. Chicago already had fire codes at the time of the fire. The school was just allowed to ignore them.
     Then we learn of the heroic rescue efforts of three nuns, capped by Sister Helaine O’Neill, "who literally used her body as a human bridge for children to climb across over a flaming stairwell." Saints have been beatified for less.
     Maybe that happened. David Cowan and John Kuenster don't tell that story in their definitive book, "To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire." But maybe they missed it. I wasn't there, so I can't say.
    There are other stories, of nuns ordering their students to sit, students who might have escaped but didn't. Of the desperate efforts of parents to get to their dying children. We don't get those. We don't get anything else. Fire codes revolutionized and nuns heroic. Period.  End of story.
     That's wrong. A deformation of history. An offense, a crime of forgetting committed again the horrors of the past, against those who suffered from those horrors. Two-thirds of the students who survived the Our Lady of the Angels fire were boys. Ponder that for a moment. Many of the younger students were found by the windows, where the older ones had trampled them. This is not to single out any particular faith, though I know some readers will take it that way, because it's easier to play the victim than to think. All creeds panic in a fire. There is nothing inspirational or pretty about it. As the years go by, and journalistic standards are replaced with an ill-considered tendency toward entertainment and pat tales of inspiration. Maybe that's what happens when a hedge fund buys your paper; journalism falls away and we are left with distortion and propaganda. We all need to guard against that.


  1. Years ago, I read Michelle McBride's book on the fire. She was one of the survivors, but badly burned in the fire & she flat out hated the nuns, for their inaction. She died several years ago from the effects of the burns.
    I was appalled at the Trib article praising the nuns & leaving out their rotten inaction, saying that god would take care of them.
    Those nuns were sick & depraved!

  2. As with people who glorify the 50's as America's decade of peace and prosperity and the fruition of the American ideals won through the sacrifices of the Depression and WWII, forgetting Korea and all of the racial and societal injustices, and the calamitous diseases that plagued America. We always have to remain vigilant for those, including ourselves, who want to see the past through rose colored lenses or only through one lense.

  3. Well done. Makes one wonder about history read that was written over one hundred years where nobody is living anymore to dispute the facts. What is written is what we get. Great column.

  4. Two things I've always found bothersome about that horrific tragedy:

    1) I read how someone -- a nun, priest or just a fatuous layperson -- said something to the effect that, God just wanted 92 little angels by his side. That kind of smug pap is annoying under any circumstances; in this case, it's enraging. Maybe God would have changed his mind if the school had taken fire safety seriously.

    2) I also remember reading how a student at the school was suspected of setting the fire, but it was covered up out of concern for him, or the school, or the Church, or something. That always sounded like a bullshit conspiracy theory to me, and I hope that's all it is.

    1. It's far from a bullshit conspiracy theory. Most of the survivors at the OLA website know the name of the kid who started the fire in a trash bin. The website does not allow the name of "the boy" to be used. He-who-must-not-be-named is always referred to by those two words. He was a suspect in previous arson cases. Prior to the OLA fire, there had been a number of suspicious house fires and garage fires in the neighborhood.

      Both the City of Chicago and the Archdiocese of Chicago successfully covered up his involvement at OLA. He was never incarcerated. He was only ten. He moved elsewhere and was suspected of setting other fires, in which there were fatalities.

      At thirteen, "the boy" confessed to starting the school fire, but later denied having done so. All the arson charges against him were dismissed, because of his age. The OLA fire's cause has always been officially listed as "undetermined."

    2. John Kuenster, one of the co-authors of "To Sleep With the Angels" has a very detailed book called "Remembrances of the Angels: 50th Anniversary Reminiscences of the Fire No One Can Forget" that treats the fire being started by a 5th grader as an established fact. His take, if I recall, is that it doesn't matter at this point who it was, and I tend to agree with him.

    3. I remember John Kuenster's superb baseball coverage in the Daily News in the early Sixties. Later on, I read his baseball books, and I was a long-time subscriber to Baseball Digest, which he edited. His books about the OLA fire are the definitive works on the disaster. He was right. It really doesn't matter anymore. The guy died in 2004. His identity is still being withheld to protect his innocent family and relatives, none of whom had any connection to what he did.

  5. Well framed piece through out mr. Steinberg . Very well put.

    My family lived 5 blocks OLA I was newly born. My mom heard the fire engines sirens and could see the smoke. She's grateful for the sugar coating bringing diminishment to the horror. Neighbors lost children in that fire. It's a hard thing to always remember. We must but those who lived through such tragedies only can. They have no choice.

  6. As soon as I saw the image of those nuns, I knew what the topic of today's column would be. I think of the fire every December 1st. And the parochial school in my neighborhood is also named Our Lady of Angels. For almost thirty years, it's been impossible for me to drive past the entrance sign and not think of that terrible day. My wife will never understand. She didn't grow up in Chicago.

    There exists a messageboard for those who went to OLA. It attracts both the survivors of the fire as well as the curious, who are called "guests." Many have an insatiable curiousity about the disaster, but some are just voyeurs and ghouls. The OLA alumni and survivors have created a HUGE website, with posts archived back to 2004.

    I went to a public school two miles away until I was seven. Then we moved to the suburbs. I went to the OLA board to find out the answer to a nagging question--how many kids were in your average Catholic school class in 1958? I was stunned---it was close to sixty! When my wife transfered to a public school...her class size was reduced by half.

    I became obsessed with the OLA board. I soon learned that countless Boomers, roughly the same age as the fire victims and the surviviors (they were between 8 and 14...I was eleven), were extremely traumatized by this horrible event. Not just those of us in Chicago who watched the traumatic images on TV news and read the newspapers...all of which I couldn't look at but couldn't manage not to. Kids all over the country, of a certain age, and not all of them Catholic, received a harsh and brutal lesson about their mortality...hey, that coulda been me! ME!

    I thought I already knew a good deal about the disaster, but I learned I knew next to nothing. The survivors are NOT shy about retelling how roughly half their classmates died. For the survivors who lost siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors, there was no grief counseling or therapy (especially for childhood PTSD) in 1958. They were ordered to suck it up and to NEVER talk about it, not even to one another. They were segregated from the "normal" kids in their new schools. In a way, the board has become a therapy of sorts.

    I learned that both the church and the city knew the place was an overcrowded firetrap, but that fire code violations were shrugged off. And I read about the grieving parents who received envelopes of cash from well-dressed strangers, for funeral expenses. Not from city workers or church employees. Nope. They were from "The Boys."

    But maybe worst of all, I learned that those who lived were told "God only takes the good ones." Imagine what that made them feel like? The guilt, and the knowledge (often first-hand) that the "bad kids" and the "tough kids" survived because they pushed the smaller and "softer" ones out of the way, and left them to die horribly? For the OLA survivors, "Only the Good Die Young" is not just a pop song.

    I buried myself in all of this, like a kid in a pile of leaves, for too many nights. THOUSANDS of posts. Not just the many nostalgic posts about growing up Polish and Italian on the West Side in the Fifties, but the dozens of angry posts about classroom punishment by priests and nuns (My wife went to Catholic school, 1953 to '58, and she verified those stories), and the extremely graphic eyewitness acounts of the fire itself. About choking on the heavy, toxic smoke. About how the fire burst into their classrooms. About how the nuns made them sit and pray before they finally stampeded for the windows. About jumping to the pavement below. And about seeing their classmates die.

    Even before OLA, I was terrified of death by fire, and newspaper images of charred bodies gave me nightmares. Fire has to be the worst way to die. And yet, I spent way too much time at that OLA website. Go figure. I learned all I wanted to know, and more. Probably too much.

    Sorry for the length, Mr. S. I guess you hit a nerve.

  7. Also polish and italian myself. I drive past the site of this dissaster nearly every day and when someone's in the car with me I tell them about it. Most have never heard about it , some actually don't believe the story , all have been through numerous fire drills in school and can't imagine such a thing happening. They worried about deranged gunman not fire.

    I took my wife a cleveland native right past the site. There's a stone monument with all the names engraved. So horrible

  8. I have to respectfully disagree about your take here. This writer, who evidently used to write for the Chicago Catholic, wanted to write a nice story about nuns. As you note, Neil, "The Catholic church does much good that should be recounted." So, she's recounting some of that good and using today's date as a bridge.

    This article is not primarily *about* the tragedy, though it references it. It's about nuns. There is a *lot* that one can read about the tragedy if one is interested in looking. In the online version of the article itself there are 3 hyperlinks to other material. She only has so much space, so I don't fault her for the framing of her piece.

    One of the links is to a Rex Huppke article from 2008 that addresses the tragedy in a more comprehensive manner.

    I don't know anything about the history of the fire codes. If I were to criticize this article it would be for her sentence flatly stating that one of the nuns "literally used her body as a human bridge for children to climb across over a flaming stairwell." As you note, that sounds incredible. More surprising to me is that the writer links to a page about this incident, which makes it seem like it's apochryphal. It makes me wonder if she actually read the thing she linked to. The link concludes: "In any case, the origin of such wild stories as students crawling across Sister Helaine's body over a flaming stairway remains a mystery."


    I agree with your contention that "journalistic standards are replaced with an ill-considered tendency toward entertainment and pat tales of inspiration." With the exception of the "literally" incident above, I don't think this article is an egregious example of it, though. I despise the fact that the Trib is owned and mishandled by a hedge fund; I don't believe that it's all that relevant to the publishing of this piece, as the ill-considered tendency has been noticeable for a long time.

    1. I'm glad you pointed this out, and I almost didn't write anything at all, just because, as you say, the writer was a former archdiocese reporter, and obviously his point was to focus on the nuns, now. It was that human bridge vignette that set my teeth on edge, it seemed straying into the incredible, and though the Tribune isn't exactly without a reputation for that kind of thing, I figured, with the looser, gotta-say-something-every-day standards of the blog, I could register my objections without doing too much violence to the author—that's why I didn't mention the writer's name, figuring this would settle into the sediment of obscurity and not cause too much discomfort. But if I wrote a piece about the bandshell at Auschwitz, and mentioned that there was a fine orchestra there during the war, it would seem a bit strange, that's all, like something was missing. That's my take here. Not a scenery-shaking lapse so much as a wrongness in tone worth noting. But your point is well taken.

  9. I also like nuns, in particular the nuns who taught me for my first 8 years of schooling. I don't think I was a goody-two-shoes, a suck-up or a teacher's pet, but some of my classmates probably did. I liked the nuns and they liked me for a host of reasons: I had religious ambitions of my own from an early age; I was a consummate test taker; I was obedient and quiet; and I didn't pester the girls in my class. However, as a general rule, I find myself on the side of those who prefer the gritty truth to the sanitized hagiographies. Here, I'm appalled at the virulent criticism of the Our Lady of Angels nuns and by extension nuns in general -- "sick and depraved" is a little much, don't you think, Clark Street? Nonetheless, I think it probable that some of the nuns at the school were culpable and failed in their duty to protect their students. And I can't ignore the the antipathy that consumes the more spirited of those who like me were educated by nuns for 8 years. Teaching is a hard job and not all those who teach are emotionally and intellectually equipped to do it well. And the nuns at Our Lady of Angels were no doubt handicapped by superstitious beliefs and rigid thought patterns. I for one am not sure that I would be better equipped to handle such a crisis. If training was more emphasized after the fire, perhaps lives were in fact saved by the horrible example presented by the dearth thereof.


    1. No, sick & depraved is an accurate description of nuns who told the children to sit & allow a god that's never existed to let them die in agony!

    2. Having been educated by nuns for twelve years, to a greater or lesser degree, I can also understand "the antipathy that consumes the more spirited" former pupils, even the animosity of some. Personally, in general, I thought they did well in a difficult job, cared about their students, and provided a solid education.

      But I was a "good kid" like you, John. I saw some stuff, but was never the target of a nun's wrath, myself. While I don't defend some of the "old ways" of dealing with troublesome students, there's little doubt that there were guys that needed more, uh, attention than you or I did.

      I concur with the attitude you express in the last 4 sentences of your comment.

  10. I’ve known about that fire for many years. I’ve heard about it from time to time and especially when the anniversary comes up. I never read, though, that the nuns made the children sit in their seats and pray that they would be saved even as the fire raged around them. I never read that another nun acted as a bridge for children to cross over a blazing staircase. I also never read or knew that one of the children started the fire. What I read was from the perspective of one of the surviving children who suffered nightmares of that tragic day and who lived with surviver’s guilt. A sad sad tragedy no matter the perspective.

    1. Not sure where you're going with this, Janet. I never read a biography of Beyonce, but I believe she exists. The nuns keeping their kids in their seats is an established fact, as is the kid setting the fire. The fact that you haven't read about it doesn't alter the situation.

  11. I was four. We saw the kids running through the neighborhood without their coats on (it was December) and wondered what was happening, then looked out the back window to see the plume of smoke.

    I was also a member of the first 1st-grade class in the new building.


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