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A sad anniversary

Peter Steinfels's "Beliefs" column in this weekend's New York Times is a moving recollection of a tragic Catholic-school fire in 1958 Chicago, and its effect on the survivors -- including then-editor of Commonweal John Cogley.

About a year before the fire, John Cogley, who would later become religious news editor at The New York Times, made a nostalgic visit to Our Lady of Angels, where he had been baptized and attended the parish school.He mulled the fact that here hundreds of us from the bleak streets of Chicago were first introduced to the glory and beauty of Catholicism: here we were incorporated into the great Western tradition that stretches back, back, back to the saints and prophets of old, so that in later years when I was fortunate enough to visit Rome, Paris, Istanbul and Jerusalem, it was not wholly as a stranger but as one coming home that I knelt before their altars.Then I turned around and forgot about Our Lady of the Angels and the kids playing outside, he wrote in the Dec. 18, 1958, issue of Commonweal, until the day the terrible thing happened.

Cogley's take, as quoted by Steinfels (and just posted on our site), is devastating. (Read the whole "Beliefs" column here.)In reading about the experiences of survivors in the wake of this tragedy, I was reminded of what I've heard about the General Slocum disaster. The Slocum was a steamship that caught fire in New York's East River in 1904. More than 1000 people died, most of them women and children on an outing with their German-Lutheran church group. I only happened to learn about this when Benedict XVI visited Manhattan last year and made a special stop at a traditionally German Catholic parish in Yorkville. An article I read explained briefly that Yorkville (on the far-Upper East Side) had become NYC's "German neighborhood" in the wake of the Slocum tragedy -- unable to remain in the Lower East Side neighborhood where they'd lived before the fire, the survivors relocated and began again uptown. I couldn't believe I'd never heard about this before. But surely I would have if I had grown up in a German New York family. And maybe I had just passed over any reference to it until that mention in the 2007 article caught my eye. I know I'd seen the memorial in Tompkins Square Park and wondered, idly, what it represented. Now I know.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an associate editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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The article is very moving, thanks for the link.

I beleive NPR's Morning Edition also had a rather moving piece about this recently.St. Joseph's in Yorkville was indeed a German national parish - may still be, but the neighborhood of old - German (Catholic and Jewish) and Irish(always a big St. Pat's day celebration every year) with German Stations of the Cross in Lent - has long changed with the gentrification of that neighborhood.Growing up there, I don't remember hearing about the Chicago fire, but I'll tell you a story. Thne pastor had come from one of the few balck parishes in New York, and when a schol in harlem was overflowing with students, he accepted several into St. Joseph's where class sizes were mainly 50-55.Many moons ago, i enjoyed playing ball with some of those guys on weekends on Randalls Island.In reflecting on this I think we're losing out touch with many inner city parochial schools (for many reasons), but maybe we should look up into the present at what the Bishop of Baltimore faces and what the Bishop of Memphis has done.

My grandmother's family lived in lower Manhattan, and the Slocum disaster had a profound effect on the peolpe who lived there. It really changed the way they looked at life. My mother was too young to remember the event, but she could never speak of it without choking up. The way her parents had felt about it made it seem it had happened to our own family. One of my friends is writing a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, another nightmare many New Yorkers feel they own in a similar way. And now of course we all have have 9/11. It was interesting to read the thoughtful Steinfels piece on Saturday in the Times and see the way all the rlocal reactions he quoted blended together to show that Chicagoans also have a mysterious and laudable desire never to forget such things. Closure isn't always possible, or maybe appropriate. They do reverberate, and maybe they should, indefinitely.

In addition to my original post, I urge folks to look at the article by Archbishop Wuerl in the new America about Catholic schools, keeping them solvent and serving the poor.

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