Feast of St. Joseph, 1885 fire in Emmitsburg

(Excerpt from Provincial Annals of March 20, 1885 used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Provincal Archives)

Today is the feast of St. Joseph, to whom St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had a great devotion. On her arrival in Emmitsburg in 1810 Mother Seton named the area St. Joseph’s Valley, and it is known by that name to this day. On the feast of St. Joseph in 1885 a fire broke out on the Sisters’ grounds which destroyed one building and damaged several others. Below is an excerpt from a first-hand account of the fire, found in the Provincial Annals of March 20, 1885.

Provincial Annals (20 March 1885)
The Fire at St. Joseph’s

The morning of Friday, March twentieth broke. A sharp north west wind had been blowing through the night, and from moment to moment it grew colder and colder. The fires were well kept up, for it seemed that the deepest cold of winter was again upon us. Through the morning Sr. Mariana [Flynn] had been haunted by the fear of fire, always so vigilant and preventing on this point, this morning she felt the necessity of being doubly so. Her thoughts flew, however, in other directions, not to the kitchen.

It is hard to tell when or how the fire originated. The whole interior space between the ceiling and roof was probably one volume of seething flame before and human eye marked its presence. John Classen, one of the men, was coming home across the fields from town when he saw the flames or smoke and hastened to give the alarm. At the same instant came a message by telephone from town: “Did we know the house was on fire?” This met Sr. Mariana as she came heading the ranks from Da Pacem. By the time she reached the kitchen, the men, our men, were already there with the hose. It was at dinner time and the whole force of men were at hand.

The fire company of Emmitsburg was quickly on the spot and at work. When it was sought to attach the hose to the Mountain Water plug, it was found frozen up. Hot water had to be procured to thaw it out. This caused some delay. All Emmitsburg, all the neighborhood, all the priests and students of Mt. St. Mary’s came running to our assistance. Still the bells of St. Joseph’s clamored for help. The wind blew fiercly from the N.W., perhaps it was our salvation. It was bitter cold; everywhere the water fell, save in the living flames it was at once converted into ice. The men who fought the flames were literally incased in ice. Still the fire advanced. The refectory caught. The Gothic building was the next, upon it rested all hopes for St. Joseph’s. That attained every building must go. Recognizing this the firemen turned the stream of water steadily on the point of connection. The old dry shingled roof, shingled twenty years ago, seemed to invite the flames. The projecting, dormant window on the N. East corner seemed to kiss the burning building. As Sr. Mariana saw the two first buildings abandoned, she was almost in despair. “I beg you try to save them.” No, Sister, they must go; we must try to save the Gothic building.” Later she recognized the necessity and wisdom of the act …

Mother telegraphed to Baltimore and to Frederick for assistance. Baltimore was too far, but Frederick responded … Between three & four the Frederick Fire Companies, and engine arrived. Every train had been side tracked that the special one might speed on its errand of mercy … At midnight the danger was over, and the Frederick Company withdrew from the grounds, and returned to Frederick on a special train …

During the night telegrams were coming and going, there was no end. Parents inquiring for their children. Benefactors, friends, Sisters sending messages of sympathy and condolence. As soon as the report wildly exaggerated spread in Balt. of Saint Joseph’s burning down, several of the parents hastened to catch the four o’clock train and came up not knowing in what condition their poor children would be found, even bringing clothes for them. As St. Joseph’s came in sight with its appearance of calm, untroubled, quiet for all the fire was in the rear, no one could imagine, they said, the feeling of serenity and peace which descended on the hearts.

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Filed under Elizabeth Ann Seton, Feast Days, Provincial Annals, St. Joseph's Academy

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