Q: I was an altar boy at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Belleville in the mid-1970s. When I mentioned this to my wife, she immediately asked if that wasn’t the church that had burned down in its early days. Her question reminded me of something I have wondered about for ages: How could a building made of stone, marble and granite burn?
Gary Simmons, of Belleville
A: It’s why I have to buy fire insurance for my brick house: Those walls may have been fashioned from brick and stone, but the pews, ceiling, rafters, etc. were made of very flammable wood.
On Jan. 4, 1912, that combination produced what was at that time described as the largest and most destructive structural fire in the history of Southern Illinois. Had you come to Pace (now Third) and Harrison streets the next day, you would have witnessed a scene reminiscent of the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany: the smoldering remains of the interior surrounded by the roofless but still intact walls standing proudly.
At about 6 p.m. the night before, the Rev. Joseph H. Schlarman, the church’s rector, had just sat down to Thursday night supper with other priests. Moments later, someone threw open the door and shouted, “Fire in the cathedral!”
“We literally flew up from our chairs and ran to the burning edifice,” Schlarman recalled in one of the eyewitness accounts later included in “Souvenir of the Cathedral Fire” published by the Messenger, the Belleville Diocesan newspaper.
As he approached the east side of the great church, he saw flames 5- to 6-feet long leaping out from all sides of the central ventilator on the roof. He told the Rev. Anthony Kuhls: “Go to the altar and take the blessed sacrament away!” It was taken safely to what was then St. Vincent’s Hospital just up the street at 304 W. Lincoln.
Schlarman then ran to the cathedral’s front landing as the fire department arrived. From there, he led Fire Chief Frank Dinges through the tower and up a ladder behind the organ to the ceiling.
“There stood the chief and the firemen with the nozzle pointing right at the fire a few feet ahead of them — but no water!” Schlarman recalled.
As a priest ran to call the water company about the low pressure caused by a broken valve at the water station, members of the parish began running into the sanctuary to carry out carpets, altar cloths, vestments and statues.
By this time, the cathedral ceiling had caught fire. The Rev. Francis Techlenburg remembered watching a hole grow larger around the chain of a new chandelier that recently had been installed. Moments later, the 600-pound chandelier crashed to the floor with its 50 bulbs smashing and sending glass fragments flying.
“A good bit of plaster came down and made a large opening for air to rush towards the fire, fanning it to a dreadful glow,” Techlenburg wrote later. “The pressure of water increased and the flames could now be reached, but too late. The whole church was an ocean of fire.”
By the time the blaze subsided, only the scorched walls and tall cathedral spire remained. Damage was estimated at $100,000 — the equivalent of $2.4 million in today’s dollars. Only $40,000 reportedly was covered by insurance — $20,000 for the interior and $20,000 for the exterior.
But that didn’t stop a building committee from meeting the very next day to discuss reconstructing the building, which had stood since 1866 and was designated a cathedral in 1887. Within two weeks, architects determined the existing walls to be still sound, and reconstruction began.
So what caused the fire? At first, suspicion fell on the wiring for that new chandelier and other light fixtures, but this was later ruled out. The cause remains a mystery.
“God knows. I don’t,” wrote Schlarman, who would later become bishop of Peoria. “The cause of the fire probably will forever remain a mystery to man. No one is to blame, and we have reason to thank God that no lives were lost.”
For those who have never been inside the awe-inspiring structure, I’d strongly recommend taking a virtual tour of the cathedral and learning more of its history at www.cathedralbelle.org. Then, click on “About” and “Our Cathedral.”
Q: I saw the tail end of a TV commercial for some dot-org group promoting secure storage of firearms at home. I’d like to know more about them and support their efforts. Because most of the guns used in shooting deaths are stolen, I think that’s the best approach to stopping them.
J.D., of Millstadt
A: If you’re aiming to promote gun safety, you might want to shoot a check to Project ChildSafe, a national educational program that promotes the safe storage of firearms in the home.
Since 2003, Project ChildSafe has partnered with 15,000 law enforcement agencies to distribute 36 million free safety kits to gun owners. These kits contain a cable-style gun-locking device, instructions and a safety booklet. The program was developed by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry.
Through its work and the distribution of more than 70 million free locks by gun manufacturers, the 501c3 nonprofit says the country has seen a 31 percent decline in fatal firearms accidents from 1998 to 2012.
While federal funding to the group was cut after 2008, it still receives on average 1,000 requests for safety kits every day. If you’d like to help prevent the next accidental shooting, send a check to Project ChildSafe Inc., Attn: Accounting Dept., 11 Mile High Road, Newton, CT 06470. Or you can donate online or find more information at www.projectchildsafe.org.
If you need a safety kit, contact one of the many area law enforcement agencies listed on the website, including the police departments in Belleville, Collinsville, Fairview Heights, Edwardsville and Waterloo, just to name a few.
What famous composer once wrote ballet music for 50 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus elephants?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: As early as the 1300s, people began flocking to Spa, Belgium, to avail themselves of the cold, natural springs that were reported to have health-giving properties. Countless similar sites have sprung up since — including the mineral springs in Okawville — but it is this town of 10,000 in eastern Belgium whose name is now associated with any place that has a natural water source thought to have healing properties.