Memories of when the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville burned down in 1912

St. Peter’s Cathedral in Belleville one day after the 1912 fire.
St. Peter’s Cathedral in Belleville one day after the 1912 fire.

106 years ago today, on Thursday, Jan. 4, 1912, the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville burned, leaving just four scorched walls and the bell tower.

The Belleville News-Democrat headline was: “Fire destroys magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral, and reduces famous edifice to picturesque ruin and piles of ashes.”

In “Memoirs of the Cathedral Fire,” by the Rev. J.H. Schlarman, then the rector of the cathedral, Schlarman recalled that he and other priests had been hearing confessions all afternoon and went home to supper, never suspecting anything was wrong.

Their meal was suddenly interrupted. 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.

A young girl, Bertha Kohl, looked out the window at her father’s home on South Illinois Street shortly after 6 p.m. and saw what she at first thought was the reflection of the setting sun on the cathedral roof. She called other family members to see.

Since their telephone was out of order, one of the children had to run next door to report the fire to the Jackson Street Station.

The priests arrived without even throwing on winter clothing. Flames were shooting through the roof.

As Schlarman 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.

The fire apparently started between the ceiling and the roof. It spread until burning timbers fell into the church, setting much of the rest on fire.

When firefighters arrived they soon found there was not enough water pressure to pump water to the roof 80 feet high.

The paper reported that a broken automatic valve at the water station was the cause for the low pressure, according to the water company. Not helping was the temperature of 15 degrees.

Even when Schlarman showed them a place to climb to the ceiling and shoot water through an opening, there wasn’t enough pressure to reach the fire.

As a priest ran to call the water company about the low pressure, 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.”

Schlarman also wrote about watching the conflagration.

“By this time, the ceiling of the church had caught fire. I stood on the upper steps of the old St. Peter’s for the last time and watched as the beautiful central chandelier, weighing 600 pounds, came down with a crash. The men who had installed it previously had given me the assurance that it would not come down unless the whole church came with it. It came true.”

At least the clock was saved.

“The efforts of the firemen to keep the (bell) tower from igniting were successful, and all during the fire the bells tolled the quarter hours and the hours while the church proper was a seething mass of flames,” the newspaper reported.

Ice was everywhere. A water hydrant apparently was pulled from the street by suction from a pumper truck, and water flooded the streets. The Belleville fire chief fell on the ice and cracked his head, knocking him out. He soon revived and went back to leading the fight, the paper noted.

The newspaper speculated that crossed wiring started the fire. But the fire story also includes the views of one of the men who worked for the electrical firm that did the wiring. He said that all the wiring had been encased in sealed metal pipes and couldn’t be the cause.

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.”

A day later, the Belleville News-Democrat estimated the loss at $100,000 and reported that insurance would cover only $40,000: $20,000 for exterior repairs and $20,000 for the interior. But already Belleville Diocese Bishop John Janssen was moving forward with plans to rebuild.

Another newspaper item noted that in addition to the regular program at the Gem Theater downtown, 12 excellent views of the ruins of St. Peter’s Cathedral would be shown.

“The pictures were taken early Friday morning by Hankammer and Bedel, the photographers, and will be projected on the screen of the theater,” the newspaper reported.

A day later the newspaper reported on the story of a 6-year-old boy who, instead of going straight home from school, went to tour the Cathedral remains.

“When he had not returned home at 4:30 o’clock, the police were notified and the entire department that was on duty was sent out to look for the youngster,” the paper reported.

He showed up at about 7 p.m. covered with ice.

“He said he went to the cathedral and got in some water that froze, but declared he had had a good time just the same and had seen everything there was to see.”

A large fire broke out at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on April 15, 2019, causing part of the historic church’s spire to collapse after being engulfed by flames.

Former BND columnist Roger Schlueter and reporter Heidi Wiechert contributed to this story.