By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published December 4, 2008 | En Español
I am not certain just how many people who are currently living in the Archdiocese of Atlanta will have paused this past Monday to remember the event that took place in Chicago 50 years earlier. I daresay that it will have meant more for those folks who are my age and older or who like myself may have Chicago roots. There could very well be some people in this archdiocese whose own lives were personally touched by that tragedy. Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the horrible Our Lady of the Angels School fire that claimed 92 young lives and the lives of three women religious. The fire brought such sorrow and pain to an entire parish family and community that many people suffered emotional and spiritual pain for the rest of their lives, and some no doubt still bear the scars of that event even today.
It was an unthinkable catastrophe, which broke hearts far and wide beyond that parish, community and diocese. Its repercussions ushered in an extensive and much needed obligatory reform of school safety standards and practices across our nation.
Several months ago during one of our staff meetings, we were reviewing procedures that are in place for safety policies for our own schools. I have no tolerance for any violation or neglect of those policies. Our insistence on those policies is not for mere insurance and legal requirements, but because the image of those youngsters and their distraught parents will be forever etched in my heart and in the minds and hearts of those who recall that frightful day.
The still then-new Archbishop of Chicago of less than six months, Albert G. Meyer, had to preside at mass funeral liturgies and attempt to comfort and console families for whom consolation was almost impossible to find. I cannot even imagine the impossible sorrow that must have filled his heart while still in a new pastoral position and trying to console those whose hearts were so deeply broken.
Time occasionally causes us to forget or to lessen our resolve even in the face of such great mourning—but it must not in this particular case. Public safety in our schools and institutions, Catholic and public, must be a non-negotiable activity. I now use this column to remind all of our administrators, pastors and staff members to be vigilant in taking every precaution in making sure that our structures are safe and in full compliance with the highest standards for public safety.
On Dec. 1, 1958, I myself was only a sixth-grader—brand new to Catholic school when this fire happened in another part of the city of Chicago. One of my now deceased priesthood classmates, Father Robert J. Nedza, was also himself a sixth-grader across the city at Our Lady of the Angels. He obviously was one of the fortunate youngsters to have escaped the tragedy. He rarely spoke to me about that day—and with obvious reason.
As I prayed for the repose of his soul and the souls of all those lost on the anniversary of that sad day, I now pray that such sorrow will never visit any school again—especially a tragedy that we can prevent through our careful attention to policies and procedures that are intended to avoid this type of sadness. May all of those youngsters, sisters, and Bob rest in the peace of God’s holy angels.