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.