Our Lady of Angels school, site of devastating 1958 fire, has fire sprinkler system installed

A modern fire sprinkler system now exists throughout the building that sits on the site where the historic blaze killed 92 children and three nuns


Javonte Anderson
Chicago Tribune

Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford couldn’t help but reflect on one of Chicago’s greatest tragedies as he spoke in front of where the original Our Lady of Angels school once stood.

“At this site, the lives of so many people changed 62 years ago,” Ford said.

Firefighters fight the blaze at Our Lady of the Angels grade school Dec. 1, 1958. This photo was taken as the fire roared through the school, which formerly was the parish church, and before the enormous loss of life was apparent.
Firefighters fight the blaze at Our Lady of the Angels grade school Dec. 1, 1958. This photo was taken as the fire roared through the school, which formerly was the parish church, and before the enormous loss of life was apparent. (Photo/Chicago Tribune Archives via Tribune News Service)

On Wednesday, Ford was joined by fellow firefighters as well as the founder of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, who recently was named a bishop, and nuns who work there to celebrate the installation of a modern fire sprinkler system throughout the same building that sits on the site of where one of this country’s most devastating fires occurred.

Six decades ago, 92 children and three nuns died in the blaze that swept through the Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School in a few hours.

Today, the mission uses the three-story building that replaced that one to provide social services to the community, including a food pantry and after-school programming. It is being renovated further to become an outreach center for Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park and other surrounding neighborhoods.

Sprinkler Fitters union Local 281 donated the money to cover labor from the United States Alliance Fire Protection. U.S. Alliance Fire Protection donated the design, engineering and materials for the project. And fire sprinkler fitters, plumbers and pipe fitter unions installed the system free of charge.

What may seem like a routine installation of fire safety equipment is a momentous step for a building that replaced the site of the 1958 fire. Without the sprinklers, the mission risked not being able to use the former school building’s classrooms or set up parts of the building as sleeping quarters.

A firefighter removes a victim from Our Lady of the Angels grade school during a fire Dec. 1, 1958, in Chicago.
A firefighter removes a victim from Our Lady of the Angels grade school during a fire Dec. 1, 1958, in Chicago.

“We pray for those who died here every single day at the mission, and we’re so grateful to be able to pair those prayers with a building that’s completely up to the codes,” said Sister Stephanie Baliga, who lives at the mission.

So there was an added level of excitement being able to outfit the entire building with a “state-of-the-art” fire protection system.

The $400,000 project was overseen by Local 281, based in Alsip. Tom Collins, Local 281 business manager, said he was in disbelief when he learned the building only had fire sprinklers in the basement.

“We are extremely proud and happy that we were able in some small way to assist Our Lady of Angels' mission and the lasting memory of those who perished on that fateful day,” he said.

Reflecting on the tragic fire decades ago, Ford noted how the fire led to overhauls of fire codes and higher standards for building safety.

“Following Our Lady of the Angels school fire, numerous changes were made to improve school safety, not only in Chicago but nationwide,” he said.

“Our Lady of the Angels school fire was a tragedy for our city, but thanks to the advancement in fire safety that’s been made since 1958, no child has been lost to fire in the city of Chicago in a school, public or private. That’s a record I want to keep unbroken.”

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