A memory seared in my brain

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(USA Today photo)

I’m surprisingly disturbed by the fire burning this morning at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. On the face of it, there would appear to be no reason for that.  No one died (or was hurt), and the fire appears to have spared the worship area, although it did suffer water damage. (Note: the fire was declared out at 8:00, at which time they allowed Cardinal George to enter, so it must be okay.)

But the sight of a church burning takes me right back to one of my most vivid memories of childhood – the night in 1971  that St. Edwards’ Church in Shamokin, PA  burned to the ground. 

 St. Edward’s Church (now Mother Cabrini) is notable in history because it was the first church in the U.S. to have electric lighting, which was lit for the first time on Sept. 22, 1883.  (And no, I didn’t remember that. Wikipedia told me. )

If it was 1971, I was eight.  I remember being awakened by the fire alarm. 

Now, let’s talk for a moment about the fire alarm in Shamokin. It was a sound like no other I’ve heard since. It was like an awful honking sound. The number and lengths of the honks indicated where the fire was. So you could tell how close it was to your house.  And the number of honks at the end indicated how big the fire was, so the fire companies could tell who was needed. And it was so loud, it could wake the dead.

I was terrified of the fire alarm because I was terrified of fire, a result, my mother believes, of watching our back yard burn after my oldest brother Phil set it on fire when I was about 2. (It wasn’t our back yard, exactly, it was a second yard beyond it which we called the “upper yard.” I know. Weird.)

Normally, everyone would have gone back to sleep, but the number of honks of the fire alarm indicated that it was a big fire.  I heard footsteps in the house, and we soon were in the attic (which, because it was finished, we referred to as the “third floor.”)  I will never forget the sight – the sky was burning orange, like the whole sky was on fire.  My dad got in the car to see if he could find out where it was, and he soon came back and reported that it was St. Ed’s.

Much of my memory of the fire comes from stories I heard after the fact. People standing watching in horror as the steeple came crashing to the ground.  And brave priests running into the burning building to save sacred vestments and vessels.

When a church burns, it isn’t only the physical damage that’s so disturbing. It’s the image of fire – symbolizing death and destruction – engulfing a sacred space. It feels like evil is triumphing over good.  It’s devastating to the parishioners and to the church as a community.

St. Ed’s went on to be rebuilt, and was re-dedicated in 1974. I was married there (my first wedding) in 1991. (It was a compromise – we could get married in Shamokin if we got married in a Catholic church.)  It’s a pretty church, with an altar made of coal, in tribute to the many coal miners and their families who worshiped there.

Yet the memory of the burning sky remains.

Do any other Shamokinites have memories of that night?

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8 Comments

Filed under Current Events, On Being Episcopalian, Uncategorized

8 responses to “A memory seared in my brain

  1. Mary Austin

    Hi Deb,

    I admit it – I started to read your site thinking I would never have the time to follow but now find myself checking it everyday to see if we agree on whatever is going on in the world – and usually we do. The only reason I am leaving this comment is that I too, witnessed our church burn to the ground when I was 5 – it was horrible for all – in the middle of the night – and for some reason fire stuff stays with us our whole lives (i.e. Angels school fire in Chicago). Just wanted to add my 2 cents and let you know how much I enjoy your blog! Mary

  2. Deborah Maue

    Thanks so much for reading my blog, Mary, and thank you for your comment.. I can’t wait for Spring so that we can all come out from hibernation! I miss seeing you!

  3. Margaret

    What’s interesting is that I don’t remember the actual St. Ed’s fire at all, but I feel the same way you do when the Leaven’s building burned right across the alley from mom’s store. I’ll never forget being wakened in the middle of the night with the news that the building was on fire and that mom ought to go in to the Debbi Shop to get out important papers. I think we were in 8th grade when that happened.

    Mom, dad and I all went down and stood across the street. It was fully engulfed and when mom went in our store (even though it wasn’t actually on fire) I was panic-stricken. We must’ve just had some sort of fire safety course in school because I remember looking at the burning and building and saying, “they haven’t broken enough windows, it’s going to explode.” And sure enough, about 5 minutes later it did, and the power of the blast hurled some big guy into me, and then both of us into the building behind us. The next day at school everyone was talking about what they heard about the fire, but I think I was the only kid actually there while it was happening.

  4. Deborah Maue

    And that’s so interesting Margaret, because I have no memory of the fire in the Leavens building – I don’t even remember where that building was. And if we were in 8th grade, I should remember it. More proof that my memory is bad.

  5. Dave Berran

    Hi Deborah – My name is Dave Berran and I have vivid memories of the fire at St Edwards in Shamokin. I was finishing my senior year at Bloomsburg State College and my wife and I were staying at her father’s house on Clay street. I was studying when I heard the horns and could see the smoke and flames from our front porch – the house is only about 4 blocks from the church. So, being an amateur photographer, I grabbed my 35mm camera and ran down to Franklin street and stood under an overhang on a local bar and snapped away. Even though I was “under cover”, I was bombarded with flaming embers that were scattered everywhere – it’s a wonder more buildings didn’t catch on fire. The pics, color slides actually, turned out okay considering the lighting and the distance away from the church. It was a shame to see such an historic structure go down in flames – especially given its connection to Edison and from a personal perspective, the church where my wife and I were married. Thanks for the chance to reminisce.

    • Deborah Maue

      Thanks, Dave. I’ve forgotten most of that night, but I remember looking out of our third floor window and seeing the flames – our house was on a hill, so we had an unobstructed view of it from the third floor. I was married there after it was rebuilt. Thanks for commenting on my blog.

  6. Tom Cozzens

    Hi, my name is Tom Cozzens. We lived in Shamokin that year at 132 N. Grant street with my Mom, Dad, Brother and Sister and remember that night as if were yesterday. At the time I was in sixth grade, a boy scout and an altar boy at St. Edwards. That night the sky did light up a color that I was deftly afraid of, having been a boy scout we learned from the Fire Department all about fire. Going there the next day was very sad, all of the destruction, seeing through the church that had no ceiling or roof, scorched black and the altar still there as if it were saved. Remembering this event just recently brings back thoughts of pain and anguish, I was not a happy boy then. I have been digging in my past and my one year in Shamokin was very traumatic to say the least. Thanks for sharing your stories.

    • Deborah Maue

      Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sorry that you don’t have better memories of growing up in Shamokin. It’s an interesting place to be from. I took many good things from it, but it’s very sad to go there now and see the decline.

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