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?