(Wild Quincy recently highlighted this story in a podcast and blog. To learn more about the fire and Sister Theotima, listen here and/or read the corresponding blog.)
by Sister Carol Marie Wildt, SSND
On December 22, 1899, 50 students at St. Francis Solanus School in Quincy, Illinois, were eagerly preparing for the Christmas program scheduled for December 26. The dress rehearsal was in the third floor auditorium. Five hundred students from St. Francis School and St. Aloysius Orphanage were in attendance on this last school day before the Christmas holidays. Eight of the nine numbers in the program had already been performed. The ninth number was a tableaux depicting the Birth of Christ.
Several of the girls were in the dressing room while a dozen others were in the wings of the stage at the foot of the stairs leading from the dressing room. All were dressed in flimsy white gowns except two of the girls who wore cotton batting to represent lamb’s wool with hoods of cotton batting on their heads. As one of the girls adjusted her hood, it came in contact with the gas jet burner which had been lit to provide some light in the dressing room on the dark and gloomy December day. Attempting to knock the burning hood off her head, she set another girl on fire. Terrified, she ran down the stairs and like a flaming torch set other children on fire as their costumes of cotton, lace, and silk rapidly ignited. Within a few minutes, four were burned beyond recognition and 11 others were severely burned. Seven would die at the hospital later that evening and one died at her home the next morning. Three recovered from their burns.
The firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze and damage to the school building was minimal. Forty-two of the 92 doctors in the city responded to the call for assistance. Heroic efforts to pull the burning clothing off the children resulted in severe burns for Sister Theotima Detroyer, Sister Ludwiga Jansen and Professor Frank Musholt, the music teacher. Also burned were Father Andrew Butzkueben, OFM, pastor; Gerhard Koetters, janitor; and Sisters Radulpha Wegescheide and Ephrem Grones.
Sister Theotima was so badly burned that it was uncertain whether she would live. On December 27, both arms were amputated below the elbows in an effort to save her life. She eventually was able to travel and returned to the Milwaukee motherhouse on February 9, 1900. The following August, she pronounced her final vows in Milwaukee. She was fitted with metal hooks for hands. Later, a local blacksmith in Canada fashioned a better fitting pair of metal hands which enabled her to do many ordinary actions for herself. Eleven of the 12 girls who perished in the Quincy fire had been in her class.
Funeral services were held at St. Francis Church on December 24, 1899. Eleven of the girls were buried in one lot at St. Boniface’s Cemetery and the 12th was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery. Six horse drawn hearses, four black and two white, carried the small coffins to the church and later to the cemetery. The hearses made two trips to the cemetery. It was estimated that 3,000 people attended the funeral service at the church. At the cemetery almost 5,000 people surrounded the burial lot. In the midst of a blinding snow and with 14 white pigeons circling overhead, the caskets were gently lowered into the grave site. The people of Quincy paid for a monument which was built in the center of the lot where the children were buried. The names of the 12 girls who died in the fire were engraved on it.
The conclusion of the 1899 chronicle for the former St. Louis Province (which included Quincy) contains the editorial note: “God grant that all such entertainments be completely abolished, since the entire Christmas vacation is more or less lost to the Sisters. All their thoughts and all their efforts during this holy season must be devoted to this childish, passing amusement. Let us hope and pray that the Lord will step in to free us from this kind of work, or at least to limit it greatly.” Following the fire, similar school entertainments were greatly limited and greater caution used to avoid another tragic incident.
(Sources: The Quincy Daily Herald, December 23 and December 28, 1899; Chronicle of St. Francis Solanus, Quincy; St Louis Province chronicle, 1899; obituary of Sister Theotima Detroyer)