Setting the Record Straight - The Great Chicago Fire

by Ellen Skerrett
historian
Saint Ignatius College Prep

In 1997, Chicago’s City Council officially absolved Catherine O’Leary and her cow of any blame for starting the Great Fire of 1871.
Historians have been slower to acknowledge the outreach by Jesuits and women religious to victims of the conflagration, a serious sin of omission!
 
Arnold Damen, S.J. understood the challenges facing immigrants as they worked to create a place for themselves in Chicago. Born in Leur, Holland in 1815, he learned English as a  seminarian in Florissant, Missouri and became one of St. Louis’s most dynamic Jesuit preachers. Damen was a city-builder who regarded the Church of the Holy Family and its schools as essential elements of urban life. The Gothic church, begun in the midst of the Financial Panic of 1857, was dedicated on Aug. 26, 1860, a sign of faith and hope in the future of Chicago. Holy Family Boys’ School followed in 1865, and the Jesuit commitment to higher education took physical shape with the completion of Saint Ignatius College in 1869-70.
 
Fr. Damen was in Brooklyn, New York, preaching a mission at St. Patrick Church when he heard the news that Chicago was in flames on Oct. 8, 1871.  As the story goes, he got down on his knees and prayed throughout the night, vowing to keep seven lights burning before the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help if the Church of the Holy Family was spared destruction.
 
Wasting no time, Fr. Damen authorized Chicago’s City Collector William J. Onahan, to inform Mayor Roswell B. Mason that refugees of the Fire were welcome at the Church of the Holy Family; in the newly opened college building next door; and in Holy Family School on Morgan Street.  Onahan had known Arnold Damen since his arrival in Chicago in 1857 and admired his success in creating the largest church in the city at the same time he expanded educational opportunities for the children of Catholic immigrants.
 
In terms of size, Jesuit institutions could have provided the space needed—on a massive scale—
but instead, the headquarters of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society were established at the much smaller First Congregational Church on Washington Street at Ann Street (later Racine Ave.). 
 
Considering the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment that still existed in Chicago, it would have been a leap of faith for the city’s Protestant elite to consider William Onahan’s offer, made in Fr. Damen’s name.  It was a missed opportunity on many levels.
 
In 1871, all aid was private; there were no funds such as our current day FEMA to assist victims of tragedy.  As the official organization for Chicago, the Relief and Aid Society decided who was “worthy.” In great contrast, Chicago’s Jesuits housed victims of the Great Fire and distributed food and supplies to thousands “without distinction of race or creed.” Jesuit house journals corroborate this outreach, noting on Oct. 10 that “The orphans [were] received in the College” and that the basement was used as a “depot for distribution of provisions & clothing.” 
 
Nearby, at the Taylor Street convent of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the bell rang throughout the day, as victims of the Fire sought aid from the Sisters.  In a report to Paris, a Madame of the Sacred Heart lamented, “those in authority were almost all protestants” who refused to give money to poor neighbors on the West Side.  Much-needed aid was forthcoming at the Maxwell Street convent and school of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So beloved was Sister Agatha Hurley, B.V.M., that Dubuque, Iowa residents sent $130 along with barrels of flour and clothing.
 
An unnamed professor at St. Ignatius College recalled the fear of living “surrounded for miles in every direction by a vast tinder-box of wooden houses,” such that Jesuit priests and brothers “gathered together fourteen men and kept them patrolling the block till morning.”  But before long, supplies “poured in at once from all parts of the county” in such quantities that “a stranger passing by would have thought that the [College] had been suddenly turned into a vast Commission Warehouse.”
 
On Oct. 15, 1871, Fr. Damen returned by train to Chicago and during the next two days he witnessed firsthand the ruins of the city. What is remarkable is the speed with which life had begun to return to normal. Not only were masses celebrated every day in the Church of the Holy Family from Oct. 10 on, with prayers for “the sufferers,” but parish groups continued their meetings.  Six days after Fr. Damen returned to New York to preach missions and seek aid for victims of the Fire, the doors of St. Ignatius College reopened Oct. 23, although “eighteen of the old scholars still misfing [missing].”
 
While the site of Chicago’s Relief and Aid Society long ago disappeared from the urban landscape, the Church of the Holy Family and Saint Ignatius College Prep remain as vivid reminders of Catholic outreach after the Great Fire of 1871. And generations have continued to honor Fr. Damen’s promise to keep “lights constantly burning.”  Originally located directly beneath the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, seven lights now glow on the side altar in the east transept of the Gothic church. 
 
Click here for more information on 1871 Chicago Fire anniversary events. 
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