Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So, so close

IT'S WELL KNOWN THAT THE BEL AIR FIRE of Nov. 6, 1961, came very, very close to the Mount. What may not be quite as well known is how close -- and how close the College came to being lost.

In fact, the 6 o'clock news that night had Mount St. Mary's College burned to the ground. When they were finally evacuated around noon on that terrifying Monday, resident students were told that the firefighters had given up the College for lost. They gathered that evening in their homes or with friends and listened to the reports, tears streaming down their cheeks.

A dramatic nighttime photo transmitted by United Press International showed the blazing ruins of the Marian Hall of Fine Arts on the west. Rossiter Hall, on the east, had already burned. Surrounded by fire in the smoky, lightless night on the Mount, it was easy to conclude there was nothing left.

Two of the CSJs, away at Notre Dame University working on their doctorates, endured two days of agony, fearing the worst. Local newspapers and national television reported the College's loss but didn't get the name right. Then one of the Sisters got a phone call. Most of the campus had been spared. The letter Sister Mary Brigid Fitzpatrick wrote to Sister Rebecca Doan, telling her of the prayers of the community in South Bend, is in the College Archives, dated Nov. 8, 1961.

We have scores of photos, mostly snapshots, from the days after the fire, but only two or three from the day of the fire. The College community had evacuated by early afternoon, so there were no students or faculty to take pictures at the peak of the disaster. However, I did come across the photo above, taken by person unknown in the late afternoon. The smoke towering just behind Brady Hall tells the story of how close the flames really were.

There are many riveting stories in the jumble of records in the Archives; the Bel Air Fire artifacts are listed in four separate locations in the files. Pulling them all together is a fascinating but sobering process, especially when you see that nice, lush, 50-year-old chaparral just over there in the next canyon. The word miracle was used more than once in 1961, and now, seeing these pictures for the first time, I understand why.

Some of the photographs and other artifacts relating to the Bel Air Fire are on display in the Reading Room of the Charles Willard Coe Memorial Library at Chalon, with additional items in the College Archives. The exhibit will run through December.

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