The Great Fire of 1937
Exterior of the boiler room after the fire.
In the early morning hours of February 14, 1937 fire was discovered in the engine room of the Motherhouse. The story of the fire’s discovery, the evacuation, its control, and the aftermath has become legendary in the Community. So, too, have the countless sidelight stories of the famous night’s activities.
At one o’clock in the morning of February 14, 1937, Sister Gabrielle Maher, Third Councilor, responded to the insistent ringing of the telephone in a second floor office. Western Union was notifying the Sisters of Charity that a cablegram had come through from China announcing the death of Sister Marie Perboyre Shu. On leaving the offices, located just across the hall from the rear of Chapel, Sister smelled smoke. Discovering the source in the engine room, Sister notified the Delhi and Price Hill Fire Departments and then awakened Mother Mary Regina and other councilors and the Mistress of Novices, Sister Camilla Smith. Sister Camilla roused the novices and postulants, assigning several to the continuous ringing of the tower bell to rouse all of the Sisters. Others were sent to carry buckets of water to the old back porch or to operate the few fire extinguishers. Fire departments responded quickly but were hampered by the low water level in the well, recently depleted during the flood crisis the month before.
The Blessed Sacrament was carried from Chapel to the large room across the hall from the rear of Chapel, then called the Archbishops Room. Here also were carried the sacred vessels and vestments.
Most of the fire centered in the area of the engine room and above it, a sacristy work room. The real worry was the possibility of the fire spreading, on the one side, to the Chapel, and on the other, to the Infirmary. Novices and postulants, not already on water detail, were sent to get the Sisters out of the Infirmary. Sixteen bed-ridden Sisters were sent in police cars to Good Samaritan Hospital. The whole building was evacuated within fifteen minutes.
Even as the fire raged, help began coming in. Seton High School sent coffee and sandwiches for the firemen. Neighbors volunteered cars to take Sisters into the city; others brought kerosene lamps and candles. By four o’clock in the morning, in spite of water shortages and windy, bitter cold weather, the firemen had the fire under control; but they stayed on until noon to make sure, as did the Sheriff and his deputies. The engine room, kitchen, sacristy work room and bath house above the kitchen were all destroyed. The Chapel was spared but filled with smoke. The mass that day was offered by candlelight, after which the “Te Deum” was sung in thanksgiving that no lives were lost and the Chapel was unharmed.
The day after the fire, the public press carried words of gratitude and praise from the Sisters of Charity to the Delhi Township Fire Department, Cincinnati Fire Department, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office and the Cincinnati Police Department. These agencies, in turn, praised the Sisters for the cool, collected manner in which they had conducted the fire drill.
Exert taken from Sister Benedicta Mahoney, SC, We are Many: A History of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, 1898-1971.