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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Daughters of Charity in the Pacific Theater: World War II

Sisters Clara Groell, Eugenia Biggs, and Catherine O’Neill outside barracks, Aug. 1945. These three sisters were missioned in China and ended up serving as U.S. Army nurses in the Pacific theater of World War II.

Sisters Clara Groell, Eugenia Biggs, and Catherine O’Neill outside barracks, Aug. 1945. These three sisters were missioned in China and ended up serving as U.S. Army nurses in the Pacific theater of World War II.

For the American Daughters of Charity on mission in China during the Sino-Japanese War – a conflict known as the Second Sino-Japanese war, which had once again ignited in 1937 between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan – the war between these two countries merged into the great conflict of World War II. The Daughters were missioned at “St. Margaret’s House, Kanhsien Kiangsi, Free China,” located in the southern region of the country.

By 1941, when writing to their provincial house in Emmitsburg, Md. their letters with the address stamped on the stationery signaled the dangerous situation they now found themselves in as the war continued to creep southward. More and more, letters home recounted another night spent in anticipation of an air raid. Finally, on June 27th, 1944, Sr. Vincent Louise DeLude informed her Visitatrix at the Central House in Emmitsburg that they had been forced to flee.

Travel outside the country was still dangerous, so the Sisters turned inward, further into the country. They took up residence with the U.S. Army in Kunming, which was building airfields that could supply Allied troops. The chief nurse on base there, it turned out, was even a graduate of the Daughters’ nursing school at Charity Hospital in New Orleans!

Under the auspices of Rev. Joseph McNamara, Assistant Theatre Chaplain, the Daughters were able to once again write to Emmitsburg; but this time, the letters were written requesting necessities unobtainable for the past several years. Sisters Emily Kolb and Catherine O’Neill were both sent new pairs of glasses, and each of the Sisters was able to replace shoes that had been worn out since 1941.

Of course, military mail regulations reveal themselves in this exchange below. Sister Vincent Louise wrote: “The Canadians Sisters who left this country at Easter are still waiting for passage in…” before the page is torn to ensure their safe passage out of China.

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September 4, 1945 is the final (surviving) piece of correspondence written on official U.S. military letterhead, as the Sisters prepared to return to civilian hospitals .

In August 2019, we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of the second World War and take time to reflect on the devastating impact it had on the world. And while we pay tribute to all those who served their countries, soldiers and civilians alike, we also pay tribute to the Daughters of Charity missioned in China, who so courageously served those in need of care.


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Newly Conserved and Digitized Film: Mother Blanchot Visits Chicago

The Archives has recently had another reel-to-reel film conserved and digitized before “vinegar syndrome” could eat away at it! Check out this still from a silent film of Mother Antoinette Blanchot’s arrival to Chicago in 1950. In the vivid blue and white old-style habit and cornette, Mother Blanchot leaves Mass at Holy Name Cathedral with Visitatrix Sister Isabelle Toohey.

Mother Blanchot Chicago

The film also shows associates of the Daughters’ missions in Chicago, including St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Patrick’s School, and St. Vincent’s Social Center attending the ceremony, along with images of Chicago from the time period.

Contact archives if you are interested in viewing the entire film.  The reference account is

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