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Snapshot in Time: A sister’s account of the Great Chicago Fire

 Catherine Lucy

October 8-10 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. At that time, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet operated St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum in Chicago, Illinois. Sister Mary Incarnation McDonough later wrote about the tragic event. She had only been in Chicago for about five or six weeks when the fire erupted. Mother Mary Joseph, the director of St. Joseph’s, and her staff of 14 sisters (including Sister Incarnation) were in charge of 280 children between the ages of three weeks and 18 years old, many with physical disabilities.

Late in the evening on October 9, Sisters Incarnation and Michael noticed the bright glow of fire in the sky. Sister Incarnation wrote that “the noise and restlessness of the people gave us to understand that it was no ordinary fire.” The sisters woke and dressed the children while being “careful not to mention the word ‘fire’ in order to prevent a panic.”

After successfully evacuating nearly 300 people from the building, they “formed a close line of march” starting northward and traveled all night by foot. Each sister carried two infants each, and the older children looked after the younger ones until they reached safety outside the city limits around 4 a.m.

Sister Incarnation’s account of that fateful night is part of the Carondelet Consolidated Archives.

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The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet are a congregation of Catholic sisters. We, and those who share our charism and mission, are motivated in all things by our profound love of God and our dear neighbors. We seek to build communities and bridge divides between people. Since our first sisters gathered in 1650, our members have been called to “do all things of which women are capable.” The first sisters of our congregation arrived in St. Louis, Missouri in 1836, and we now have additional locations in St. Paul, Albany, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Japan and Peru. Today, we commit to respond boldly to injustice and dare to be prophetic.

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