Monday, January 02, 2012

100th Anniversary of Cathedral Fire to be Observed

FROM THE CATHEDRAL of Saint Peter, in Belleville Illinois:
Fire:  January 4, 1912
Centennial: Sunday, January 8, 2012, 10:30 AM Mass
                 (Will include blessing of restored historic pulpit
                  and restored Cathedra canopy)
Info: Very Rev. John T. Myler, Rector -- 618-234-1166
100th ANNIVERSARY OF CATHEDRAL FIRE TO BE OBSERVED ON JANUARY 8TH            
It was Thursday evening, January 4th, the day before first Friday.  We had been in the confessional all afternoon … Leaving, I glanced up at the main chandelier … Passing through the sacristy I cast another glance at the extensive nave of the beautiful gothic structure.  The sanctuary lamp flickered before the Blessed Sacrament. 
            Little I thought that in less than an hour all this splendor and all the labor and plannings of nearly fifty years would be little more than a mass of ruin and burning timber.-        Rev. J. H. Schlarman  
“Memoirs of the Cathedral Fire” 
            On Sunday, January 8. 2012, the people of the Cathedral of Saint Peter will observe the 100th Anniversary of the “Great Cathedral Fire” of 1912.
            Bishop Edward K. Braxton will be principal celebrant and homilist – accompanied by Bishop Stanley Schlarman and the Cathedral priests – at a 10:30 AM Pontifical Mass.  The public is invited.
            The January 8 observance will also include a “Cathedral Open House” with tours and an exhibit of historic photographs from the 1912 fire.
            Father (later Archbishop) J. H. Schlarman, at that time Rector of the Cathedral, remembered that:
            Father Tecklenburg, Father Eppmann, Father Kuhls and I said the Angelus and sat down for supper.  We had scarcely been seated at the table when the telephone and the door bell rang terrifically at the same time … Someone opened the door and shouted:
            “Fire in the Cathedral!” 
            In the same moment the housekeeper, who had answered the doorbell and the telephone called out: 
            “Father Schlarman, I believe the Cathedral is on fire!” 
            We literally flew up from our chairs and ran to the burning edifice. 
            The anniversary Mass -- on Epiphany Sunday – will recall the harsh wintery night during which the Cathedral church, which had been built in 1863, burned first from an area between the ceiling and the roof, causing burning timbers to fall, later igniting the entire interior.
            It was reported at the time that young George and Bertha Kohl, pupils at the Cathedral School, were the first to have seen the fire.
            Fire fighters from the city of Belleville were quick to the scene, but both the cold and the height of the structure prevented the growing fire from being extinguished.
            One glance at the situation told me that I had diagnosed the case correctly.  Red flames, five to six feet long, struck out on all sides of the central ventilator on the Cathedral’s roof.  I told Father Kuhls: “Go to the altar and take the Blessed Sacrament away.”
            I ran out through the steeple and as I reached the landing in front of the church I noticed that the fire department had just arrived.  I was in shirt sleeves and bareheaded, the thermometer registered about zero.  The excitement was too great, and I felt no cold.  Someone said to me, “Father, you will catch a deathly cold, take my overcoat.”  Another said, “Father, put on my hat.”  A little later a third offered me his gloves.
            At the January 8 Mass, a special tribute will be paid – a century later – to fire fighters from Belleville.  Fire fighters from other Southern Illinois cities and towns are also invited to take part.
            I ran into Third Street, where I met Chief Dinges.  I said: “Bring your hose up through the tower and go up the ladder behind the organ, there is an opening through which you can get above the ceiling and get right at the fire.” 
            The chief said he would try to reach it from below and I accompanied him into the church. He turned the nozzle up, but alas, the water did not have a pressure of thirty feet; it did not even reach the arches in the clerestory.  Then, with his men carrying hoses after him, they went up to the organ gallery and were led up to the ladder above ceiling.  There stood the firemen and the chief with the nozzle pointing right at the fire a few feet ahead of them –  but no water ! ! !
            The Cathedral choirs will sing for the January 8 Mass, under the direction of C. Dennis York, who is serving for his 50th year as Cathedral organist.  Following the Mass, a light brunch will be offered in the Cathedral Undercroft, where mounted enlargements of the several historic photographs of the fire, will be displayed.           
            Men of the congregation ran into the sanctuary to save what they might.  Carpets, altar cloths, vestments and statues from the crib were carried out.
            By this time, the ceiling of the church had caught fire.  I stood on the upper steps of old St. Peter’s for the last time and watched as the beautiful central chandelier, weighing 600 pounds, came down with a crash.  The men who had installed in previously had given me the assurance that it would not come down unless the whole church came with it.  It came true.
            Also open after the Mass and during the Open House will be the “Cathedral Museum” and the Cathedral crypt.  Five former Bishops of Belleville are interred in the Cathedral.
            Father Schlarman concluded his 1912 remembrances:
            When I returned an hour later the bare walls pointed heavenward, the stars and the silvery moon cast a soft light on a mass of ruins.  The fire raged under the floor.  The firemen were cutting holes through it to reach the flames below.
            I went to the Bishop’s house to see His Excellency, Bishop Janssen.  I found the venerable Prelate very resigned to the will of God. 
            He calmly said: “The Lord hath given it, the Lord hath taken it, the will of the Lord be done.”
Address:
200 West Harrison Street
Belleville, Illinois

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