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Tales from the Annals: Fire in Kansas City

Posted on May 4, 2021, by Loretto Community

By Reba Weatherford

I am coming to the end of my first month at the Loretto Heritage Center, and in my quest to learn about Loretto history I have read many interesting and detailed documents from the archives. I find that for me, the most enjoyable reads are the school annals. Anyone interested in Loretto history would be remiss not to know about these annals, which document the day-to-day lives and perspectives of the Sisters. But it is often the tragic events that I find most compelling, as they give me the opportunity to understand how the Sisters pushed forward in difficult circumstances. One such example can be found in the annals of Loretto Academy in Kansas City, Missouri.

Historical photo of several women sitting in chairs in an auditorium.
 Loretto Academy auditorium circa 1900.

Our story begins in the summer of 1909 when various renovations were made to Loretto Academy, located at 39th and Roanoke in Kansas City, MO. In addition to upgrades made on the grounds and inside the building, new altars were ordered for the academy chapel. The altars arrived in late October and installation began on them on October 28th. That same day, the junior class hosted an annual Halloween party below the chapel in the school’s auditorium. In attendance were other academy pupils and female family members of the girls. The theme of the party revolved around a recent hot topic – the discovery of the North Pole. The girls were costumed as Indigenous Inuit people. Their dresses were made of cambric fabric, had cotton fronts, and were adorned around the waist with decorated icicles, also made of cotton. The auditorium was decorated for the theme as well as with lit jack-o-lanterns, which served to remind guests that the soiree was indeed a Halloween party.

There are multiple accounts of the next part which deviate only slightly from one another. I have chosen here to use both details found in the annals and details relayed to the Kansas City Star by Mother Clarasine Walsh and reprinted in the Kansas City Times. Mother Walsh stated that while serving refreshments, one the icicles on the dress of student Mary Maley came in contact with the flame inside of a jack-o-lantern. The cotton icicle quickly caught fire, and the fire spread rapidly over the cambric fabric. According to Mother Clarasine, the Sisters then tried to fan out the girl’s flames, but the panicked girl ran back and forth across the stage and the Sisters were unable to catch her. The dress of another student, Agnes Champion, came into contact with Mary’s. However, a sister was able to quickly extinguish those flames, which resulted in only minor injuries to Agnes. As Mary raced toward the center of the stage, classmates Virginia Owens and Mimi Tiernan ran on the stage to assist Mary. As soon as they came in contact with Mary, their dresses also ignited.

Although the fires were put out by the time the fire department arrived and a makeshift infirmary was set up at the school, Mary, Virginia, and Mimi had been burned so severely that they did not survive. Mimi and Virginia died the next day, while Mary lived three days before succumbing to her injuries. Several other students, party guests, and Sisters had minor injuries to their hands which later healed without problems.

Historical photo of simple interior of chapel.
The chapel in 1903. This is close to how it looked in the summer of 1909.
Historical photo of ornate chapel interior
The chapel after the 1909 renovations.

At Mimi’s funeral service, the first Mass to be given at the chapel with the new altars in place, mourners were reminded of the heroism on display during the tragic events. Mimi and Virginia thought nothing of their own safety, only that of their friend Mary, when they raced over to help her. The three girls were memorialized in the school publication, The Lorettine, which celebrated the lives and deeds of the girls through prose and poetry. A bill was introduced in the Kansas City legislature later that year which called for a fireman to be present at all parties and events taking place in large auditoriums. The city council noted that although the Sisters had done nothing wrong, had a fireman and fire extinguishers been on the property, the incident would likely have ended with only minor injuries.

Bravery wasn’t on display only during the tragic incident, but also afterwards as the Sisters and their students dealt with the aftermath of the fire. They chose to concentrate on the lives of the girls and console themselves with the knowledge that they had found peace in the afterlife. As one poet in The Lorettine writes:

Historical photo of group of Sisters of Loretto sitting outside with cleaning supplies and implements
The Sisters at Loretto Academy. This photo was taken between 1908 and 1910 and likely shows many of the sisters who were present during the fire.

In sorrow now we miss them here;
Their spoken word which lulled our ear;
The kindness of their many deeds
Which lightened oft’ our frequent needs.
And yet, by Faith we know full well
That closer now than pen can tell,
Their spirits guard us from above
To lead us to their home of love.

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Loretto welcomes you

Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!