The Great Chicago Fire

School of the Holy Name -1861 - 1871, Chicago, IL

It was an act of destruction that let Chicago become the Second City.

The Great Chicago Fire began on the night of October 8, 1871. An unknown Daughter of Charity from the School of Holy Name left an 11 page handwritten account of the events of the next four days as the fire destroyed the city.

The Sister begins with the apocryphal tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, and says of its intensity and extensiveness “No human agency could produce such a fire.”

Ironically, the Daughters began the fire feeling quite safe and watching the flames from their rooftop late at night on the 8th. The wind was carrying towards the Lake.

When the wind began to turn the other direction, the sisters retired inside, still feeling safe for themselves and for the city. It was when they received news at four o’clock in the morning that the waterworks had caught fire that they felt the extent of the danger.

Father Flanagan came from the Cathedral and knocked on the door, telling the sisters to evacuate immediately, although the sisters refused to leave until consuming the Blessed Sacrament. Along with Father John McMullen, the sisters of Holy Name School began to leave the city in carriages and buggies.

Thy travelled to other missions of the Daughters farther from the fire, including St. Columba’s School and St. Joseph’s Hospital, picking up children when they could.

The unknown author commented on the sights: “All along the streets were those who had left their houses early in the evening and were too fatigued or too discouraged to go further. The people came out of their houses as we passed crying, ‘Oh! There are the poor Sisters! Is the College burned? O God help us! Ah Sisters is the Church burned? O Glory be to God! The world is coming to an end’.”

As they arrived on foot at the “one bridge left”, it was the charity of an Irishman named pat O’Brien that saved the sisters from exhaustion. Despite his worries about the wheel of his wagon and his having just lost everything that he had acquired for the past 18 years, he remarked that he had “the best load now that ever he carried! Eight Sisters and Six girls all carrying bundles.”

In the aftermath of the fire, the Daughters took refuge at St. Patrick’s School at the outskirts of the city, along with other displaced person. The author tells how Sister Mary McCarty obtained supplies, provisions, and clothing for hundreds of people from the Relief fund for the next two weeks. Although the Daughters had a long history in Chicago, the Holy Name School was a complete loss, never to reopen.

The complete manuscript of the fire is available to researchers remotely and by appointment.

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