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January 2011

Our family lives near a cemetery area bordering the western edge of the Archdiocese of Chicago.  The area was once remote, but with urban sprawl the area now lies now in a population center.  On one side of busy Roosevelt Road is Mount Carmel Cemetery, the place where Chicago’s Catholic cardinals are buried.  It’s also the final stop for notorious mobster Al Capone.  Death can bring us together in a way that life does not.

On the other side of the road is Queen of Heaven Cemetery, where section after section is dotted with the gravestones of people who came and went with little, if any, notice.  But section 18 is different. There lie 25 people, their graves marked by a common monument. Another 68 could be with them in body, and probably are with them in spirit.  Their notoriety came with their deaths on perhaps the saddest day in Chicago history.

December 1, 1958 was a typical Chicago day being lived out in a typical Chicago neighborhood.  The neighborhood was filled with Italians, Irish, and Poles, working class Catholics who sent their kids to the local parish school.  Like many others of its time, Our Lady of the Angels School was crowded.  The baby-boomers were being educated, and the Archdiocese educated so many of them.  Those boomers were often educated in decades old buildings operating under an equally old building code.  OLA’s classrooms, corridors and stairwells were heavily wooded.  As many as thirteen layers paint and varnish had been applied to ceilings, walls and floors.  There were few fire doors and no sprinklers.  The fire alarms were not linked to the fire department.

As students and teachers were finishing their work that day, something was happening in a basement stairwell.  A trashcan was burning.  Tremendous heat built under the stairwell until it broke a nearby window, fanning the fire up stairwells and into the ceilings under the roof.  Just below were six second-floor classrooms with 329 kids and six nuns.  In minutes superheated heavy black smoke closely followed by fire filled the second floor corridor and cut off their escape paths.  The fire was out of control before anyone knew what was happening.

What followed was a daytime nightmare.  Firefighters were called too late to check the advance.  Horrified parents and neighbors watched and listened as kids climbed over each other to reach second floor windows – the only way out.  “Help!  Help!  Save us!  Save us!” they screamed.  Panicked children jumped 25 feet, breaking legs, spines, and skulls. Their broken bodies piled one on another.  Parents brought ladders, only to realize that they were too short.   A father unable to reach his son watched him die.  When firefighters arrived, a locked gate blocked their trucks.  They scrambled up ladders and began to pull the pleading kids down as quickly as possible.  There were so many that they only had time to drop some.  Then time ran out.  The roof collapsed on filled classrooms, turning kids into torches.  One room exploded in flame.  As a fireman watched, screaming children pressed against the windows sills just inches from him instantly folded.  Experienced firefighters who thought they had seen it all wept and vomited at the sight of unrecognizable, charred, even fused children, some carried away in pieces.

The suffering has continued long after the fire was doused. Burned and broken children, many still living, were physically and emotionally scarred.  Their parents were forced to carry the heartache of loss and the regret of sending their kids to school.  Even the children safely escaping the fire didn’t escape with everything.  They lost their childhood that day.

Now 52 years after the OLA fire, another fire rages out of control.  On January 22, 1973, our country legalized the killing of the innocents.  The death toll has reached 53 million unborn babies.  They have not been gathered into a final resting place marked with a fitting monument.  Most of their dismembered bodies were flushed down a toilet or dropped into a disposal.  Their survivors live totally shattered lives filled with guilt, regret, anger, and self-abuse.  Yet as a culture, we have become oblivious to it all.

On January 22, hundreds of thousands will converge on Washington D.C. for the annual March for Life.  But not everyone can be there.  So the bishops have proclaimed January 22 as a day of “penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life.”  The intended focus is on the unborn.   Sadly, in some parishes the day will go unmarked.  In others its message will be diluted with talk of other social concerns, and worse, even distorted.  One local church bulletin published a supposed pro-life litany trying to distinguish “pro-birth” from “pro-life.”  In our apathy and lack of focus, we have closed our ears to the screams.

So perhaps we should remember Jonah’s march through Nineveh proclaiming that in 40 more days the wicked city will be destroyed.  Realizing their predicament, the king and the people proclaimed a penitential fast and changed their ways.  Since ancient times, fasting has provided great spiritual benefit.  By denying ourselves food, we become more disposed to listen to God’s word and more mindful of the needs of our brothers and sister.  It’s no surprise that in our self-indulgence we have given up fasting.  It may be no coincidence that our culture has been sliding ever since.

We as Church should proclaim a penitential fast to end legal abortion, a weekly fast that we may hear God’s word and that He may forgive us for allowing legal abortion to continue.  It is a fast long overdue.  Who knows?  Maybe we will again hear the screams for help.

And do something about it.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2011.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Comments?  Visit us at

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