Sisters remember 'great sheets of fire blowing past' during infamous 1929 St. Mary's Academy blaze
A devastating, mysterious fire that resulted in zero fatalities. A lofty tower crashing through the roof. Priests, nuns and laypeople saving the Blessed Sacrament and other holy objects from a burning building.
Though this may sound like a cursory recollection of the recent fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, it actually describes an event that occurred 90 years ago this month in the city of Monroe, Michigan. On June 3, 1929, flames engulfed a large part of the academic campus founded by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), seemingly imperiling the long-term future of Catholic education in this southeastern Michigan community.
Undeterred by the setback, the religious sisters of the IHM rebuilt St. Mary’s Academy just a few years later in the midst of the Great Depression, and high-quality Catholic education in Monroe has been a mainstay ever since.
The beginnings of formal Catholic education in Monroe started shortly after the arrival of Fr. Louis Florent Gillet, a Belgian missionary priest who knew German, French and English. Fr. Gillet quickly became exhausted by the extensive traveling required in order to reach all of the Catholic families in the Monroe County region and beyond. While on retreat in Baltimore, Fr. Gillet met Sr. Theresa Maxis Duchemin, the dynamic, well-educated daughter of a Haitian refugee. After learning that she spoke both French and English, Fr. Gillet knew she would be the perfect person to jump-start a Monroe school for young Catholic ladies of both French and British heritage in southeastern Michigan. On Jan. 15, 1846, St. Mary Academy officially opened with 40 students.
The new congregation organized by Mother Superior Theresa, called the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, soon embraced the St. Andre method of Catholic education, which emphasized “the dignity of each student as a child of God.” Rather than focusing on rote memorization, the sisters taught their students how to utilize logic and reasoning in their studies and develop a love for the arts. The influence of the IHM Sisters rapidly grew with each passing decade of the 19th century. By 1900, 229 sisters were teaching in 34 Catholic schools in Monroe County and the greater Detroit region.
Due to the success of the IHM Sisters and the growing number of Catholic students in the area, a sprawling, new school was added across the street to the IHM Monroe campus in 1905. The five-story St. Mary’s College and Academy was the architectural gem of Monroe with its decorative red brick facade, colonnade entrance and stately towers. Science labs, classrooms and libraries were fully equipped to give its 250 “boarding and day pupils” an incredible faith-based education.
On June 3, 1929, between noon and 1 p.m., disaster suddenly struck the new school. A trio of female boarding students from Detroit and Toledo reported a small fire in the far west wing of the building in what was called the “paper room,” and they immediately rang the closest fire bell. The initial flames, nonetheless, quickly reached a nearby elevator shaft and stairwell, which caused the fire to spread to the upper floors.
Sr. Catherine Kerwin, IHM, then a student at St. Mary Academy, remembered she had just finished lunch and was in the restroom when she heard the fire bells ringing. The students marched right out thinking it was perhaps another drill. Sr. Kerwin and her classmates quickly found out this was, in Sr. Kerwin’s words, “not a play fire drill; this was the real McCoy.”
Sr. Ann Margaret Hughes, IHM, was a novice seeking to become an official member of the congregation on that fateful day. Sr. Hughes and the rest of the novices had just been returning from a walk, and as they returned they “could hear the sirens ringing” nearby. Their hearts collectively sank as they laid their eyes on their beloved school. “We realized to our horror that it was our Academy,” recalled Sr. Ann Margaret. “Everyone was panicking.”
They were immediately instructed by their superior to “run as fast as you can to the chapel and pray.” Sr. Hughes and her fellow novices followed orders and as they began to pray, schoolchildren thankfully “piled in group by group” into the Convent Chapel, which was across the street from the burning academy. One of those children was Sr. Catherine. The children joined them in prayer, and Sr. Catherine vividly remembers the constant praying that went into the evening: “I don’t know how many million rosaries we said, but we said rosaries after rosaries and after rosaries,” she recalled.
Sr. Ann Margaret noted that many of the sisters leading the prayers had their voices “go out,” and each time another sister would jump right back where they had left. At one point during the prayers, however, Sr. Ann Margaret was distracted by the “great sheets of fire blowing past” the windows of the chapel. She recognized them as the curtains of the dormitory, which were on the third, fourth, and fifth floors. The fire was spreading.
Across Elm Street, local volunteer firefighters and concerned neighbors pitched in to stop the initial flames, but several factors prevented them from stopping the blaze. At first, there was “delay and confusion” in retrieving the appropriate ladders and hoses. Once they connected the hoses to nearby hydrants, the water pressure was not enough to reach the top floors, nor break through windows. Thousands of people descended upon the schoolyard, adding to the chaotic scene. The flames were fed by the school’s white pine floors and the wooden lockers that lined the hallways. The eastward wind spread flammable embers to the east wing of St. Mary Academy.
Once it was determined that the fire was spreading at a significant rate and the entire school was in peril, IHM sisters, local priests, and even neighbors opted to rush into the burning building to save religious paintings and other pieces of art. One neighborhood woman, according to Sr. Ann Margaret, risked death by going into the burning library to save a crucifix. Fr. Frank Cairns, the pastor at neighboring St. Mary Parish, decided to go into the building against the wishes of the local firefighters. He immediately went to the academy’s chapel and ran out with the Blessed Sacrament in hand. Fr. Frank then proceeded across the street and began a Benediction service in the Motherhouse Chapel.
By 2:20 p.m., the Wyandotte Fire Department arrived, and an hour later the Toledo Fire Department showed up. But it was too late. St. Mary Academy was completely engulfed in flames. Sometime during that hour, the soaring central tower of the school collapsed and crashed through the roof, bringing down each of the five floors below with it. The Monroe Evening News reported that once the tower began to fall, it “let loose a great roar.” At that same moment, approximately 40 volunteers, clergy, women and men “catapulted out of the building, as if they had been shot from guns.”
At 2:40 p.m., the west wall and part of the front facade of the building crashed with a resounding thud. The massive crowd consisting of IHM Sisters, local clergy, alumnae of the school, concerned Monroe residents, firefighters and news reporters could only watch as the school essentially disintegrated in front of their eyes. Tears were openly wept, and many had to restrain themselves from continuing to run into the burning shell of the school. The Monroe Evening News noted that the fire had consumed not just the boarding students’ belongings and the school equipment, but also “many beautiful and rare pictures, large oil paintings and statues worth thousands of dollars.”
Miraculously, not one student, sister, local clergy member, firefighter or Monroe resident was killed in the fire. Some suffered minor burns, but to Mother Domatilla Donahue, there was no doubt that God was watching over them that dreadful day. A few days after the fire, she sent out a circular to all students’ residences, sharing her belief that they had much for which to be thankful. Here is the conclusion of that circular: “We shuddered as we considered what might have happened and with grateful souls we thanked God that in the awful tragedy He had not asked the sacrifice of a human life. O let us never cease to praise and bless His Holy Name for this unspeakable favor; for had the fire occurred at night we can well imagine what might have happened.”
Just as soon as the flames began to dwindle, support from the Monroe community and beyond poured in. Merchants throughout the city of Monroe promised that the students affected by the fire could choose anything from their stock of supplies, free of charge. Thousand dollar checks were mailed almost immediately to the IHM campus. Other local store owners offered to completely refurbish a new Catholic school, if the sisters decided to rebuild. Heartfelt telegrams from Detroit, Downriver and beyond expressed sorrow for what happened and provided hope for the future. One in particular came from Ray Martin, a Toledo resident and the proud parent of two recent alumnae of St. Mary’s Academy. He prophetically proclaimed, “I am certain that out of the ashes of your beloved Old Saint Mary will arise another.”
Sure enough, within a matter of weeks and months, charitable funds were collected, the IHM Sisters took on considerable debt, and building contractors were sought after. Just a few years later in 1932 — in the midst of the Great Depression — the new St. Mary’s Academy opened just down the street from its former site. For the next 50 years, the IHM Sisters provided high-quality Catholic education at their new campus for high school-aged females in the region.
Demographic challenges and financial realities of the 1980s ultimately led to the merging of the “all-girls” St. Mary’s Academy with Monroe Catholic Central, the “all boys” high school in town. Sr. Joyce Durosko, IHM, was named the chief executive officer by the two schools in 1985 and was tasked with overseeing the full integration plan. A year later, Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka approved the merger and the “new” high school was named St. Mary Catholic Central.
At 108 West Elm, SMCC actually sits on the property of the first St. Mary’s Academy and infamous 1929 fire. Almost all physical vestiges of that inferno are lost to history, but the Monroe Catholic high school’s Twitter hashtag “#soulonfire,” speaks to a spiritual flame that is spreading in the school. Annually, dozens of SMCC students give up their spring and summer breaks to engage in service mission trips to Central America and rural Appalachia. Sizeable groups of students and staff also attend the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. This past school year, St. Mary Catholic Central implemented its new St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program, which offers a “Christ-centered education to every student, regardless of any mental disability.” A recent article ranked SMCC as the 38th best high school — public or private — for student-athletes in Michigan.
Ninety years ago this month, sisters, priests, and alumane cried and prayed together as their beloved school was reduced to rubble. Decades later, out of the proverbial ashes of that disaster, a Catholic high school provides hope to a new generation of the faithful in Monroe.
Joe Boggs is a public high school teacher, historian and co-chairman of the Monroe Vicariate Evangelization and Catechesis Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.