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.

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

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