Today, I will be posting “part seven” in the history series on Our Lady of Good Help. Let’s pick up where I left off two Tuesdays ago.
…. Enormous quantities of lumber were necessary to build the great mid-western cities – most notably Chicago. This essential lumber was coming from the seemingly endless forests of Northern Wisconsin. The logging companies building the mid-western cities were willing to pay a premium for Wisconsin lumber; thus thousands of lumbermen were sent to Northern Wisconsin and many boom-towns arose. One such town was Peshtigo (which I discussed in greater detail two weeks ago). In addition to being the logging command-post for much of Northern Wisconsin, Peshtigo was also a railroad crossroads and strategically located on the Peshtigo River. All of these factors would have an important influence on the impending disaster.
The Winter of 1870 – 1871 had been very dry and the drought continued throughout the Spring, Summer and Autumn of 1871 as well. In the Spring, farmers and planters had burned many acres land to rid the fields of unwanted trees and weeds in preparation of the planting season. By Summer, the Indian Scouts, fur trappers, woodsmen and lumberjacks had lit countless campfires and smudge-fires and neglected to extinguish them. With the Autumn harvest, the chaff and weeds were burned. Throughout the seasons, the railroad continued to run while the steam locomotives would often throw off sparks – igniting thousands of small fires. In spite of the drought, the people of the north-western forests and prairies – from the Dakota Territory to the forests of north-central Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan – heeded not the signs of the times and grew cavalier with the fearful force of fire.
By the time Autumn of 1871 rolled around, thousands of fires had occurred – some small, some not so small. The air was constantly filled with smoke and the scent of burning hay and pine. Destruction and Death were every were. Due to these factors, the people of the lumber towns of the north and mid-western United States had become desensitized. The ringing of a fire bell – the summons of the primitive fire-fighting crew – was an everyday occurrence.
Finally, on Sunday, October 8, 1871, the big one hit. There had been several serious fire outbreaks leading up to that Sunday. They had been successfully extinguished, though not without immense property loss. Then there was an eerie quiet, for a couple of days and it seemed as if the danger had passed – it hadn’t. On October 8, a massive low pressure zone moved over the northern and mid-western United States. The winds shifted, and started blowing at gale force from the southwest – whipping up the thousands of small burning fires into a raging inferno. This inferno became known as the Great Peshtigo Fire, or the Great Wisconsin Fire, and it destroyed 1.5 million acres and killed 1,200-2,400 people. To this day, the Peshtigo fire remains deadliest and most destructive fire in United States history.
The following is the account of the anxiety Fr. Peter Pernin, Pastor of the Peshtigo and Marinette colonies (Our Lady of Lourdes Parish), felt in anticipation of the impending disaster.
“That afternoon passed in complete inactivity. I remained still prey to the indefinable apprehensions of impending calamity already lauded to, apprehensions contradicted by reason which assured me there was no more cause for present fear than there had been eight or fifteen days before – indeed less, on the account of the precautions taken and the numerous sentinels watching over the public safety. These two opposite sentiments, one of which persistently asserted itself despite every effort to shake it off, whilst the other, inspired by reason was powerless to reassure me, plunged my faculties into a species of mental torpor.”
“In the outer world everything contributed to keep alive these two different impressions. On one side, the heavy thick smoke darkening the sky, suffocating atmosphere, the mysterious silence filling the air, so often a passage of a storm, seemed to afford grounds for a sudden gale. On the other hand the passing and repassing in the street of countless young people bent only on amusement, laughing, singing and perfectly indifferent to the menacing aspect of nature, was sufficient to make me think that I alone was a prey to anxiety, and to render me ashamed of manifesting the feeling (Wisconsin Stories The Great Peshtigo Fire, Fr. Peter Pernin 7).”
Despite his anxiety, Fr. Pernin felt compelled to act and he started to dig a trench around his residence – only pausing to extinguish small fires springing up suddenly and mysteriously. Digging was becoming difficult and breathing was becoming painful due to the heavy concentration of smoke in the air. As Fr. Pernin labored in his trench, he could hear the scoffs and mockery coming from the passersby – whom did not share his anxieties, nor his prudence. However, there were some amid the townsfolk who did share Fr. Pernin’s fears and came to him seeking counsel – these he advised to promptly make their way to the river. Many who sought refuge in the Peshtigo River were saved.
Soon, all of Peshtigo was in chaos. There were those – fearful and anxious – making their way to the Peshtigo River and there were those – too intoxicated to care about the impending disaster – “[quarreling, wrestling, rolling on the ground,] filling the air the while with wild shouts and horrid blasphemies (Pernin 10).” Just as he had prudently warned others, Fr. Pernin realized that if he were going to survive, he needed to heed his own counsel and flee to the river. Fr. Peter Pernin states:
“After finishing the digging of the trench I placed within it all my trunks, books, church ornaments, and other valuables, covering the whole with sand to a depth of about a foot. Whilst still engaged at this, my servant, who had collected in a basket several precious objects in silver committed to my charge, such as crosses, medals, rosaries, etc., ran and deposited them on the steps of a neighboring store, scarcely conscious in her trouble of what she was doing…. The wind, forerunner of the tempest, was increasing in violence, the redness in the sky deepening, and the roaring sound like thunder seemed almost upon us. (Pernin 10).”
“The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of our life in Christ,” says Blessed John Paul II, and the Priest is the one who offers this great Sacrifice; in Persona Christi he bridges God and Man. In spite of his own fear and panic, Fr. Pernin never forgot his priestly duties and the responsibility to protect the Blessed Sacrament that comes with being called to the High-Priesthood of Christ. Thus, in the face of the oncoming fire, Fr. Pernin put his own life on the line to ensure that the Blessed Sacrament would not be disgracefully consumed by the raging inferno.
“It was now time to think of the Blessed Sacrament-object of all objects, precious, priceless, especially in the eyes of a priest. It had never been a moment absent from my thoughts, for of course I had intended to bring it with me. Hastening then to the chamber containing the tabernacle, I proceeded to open the latter, but the key, owing to my haste, slipped from my fingers and fell. There was no time for further delay, so I caught up the tabernacle with it’s contents and carried out, placing it in my wagon as I knew it would be much easier to draw it thus than to bear it in my arms. My thought was that I should meet someone who would help me in the task. I reentered to seek the chalice which had not been out in the tabernacle, when a strange phenomenon met my view. It was that of a cloud of sparks that blazed up here and there with a sharp detonating sound like powder exploding, and flew from room to room. I understood then that the air was saturated with some kind of gas, and I could not help but thinking that if this gas lighted up from a mere contact with a breath of hot wind, what would it be when fire would come in actual contact with it. This circumstance, through menacing enough, inspired me with no fear, my safety seemed already assured…. Then I hastened out to open the gates as to bring forth my wagon. Barely had I laid hand on it, when the wind heretofore violent rose suddenly to a hurricane, quick as lightning opened the way for my egress from the yard by sweeping the planks, gate, and fencing away into space. “’The road is open,’” I thought, “’we have only to start (Pernin 10).’”
Fr. Pernin realized that he had delayed too long in departing. He was having immense trouble keeping his footing and breathing, let alone controlling the wagon against the wind and keeping the tabernacle in it’s place. He feared that he would not make it to the river, indeed it was a miracle he did just that, for many others proceeding and following him in flight, burst into flames before making it to the river.
“The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one’s eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in general flight. Some were hastening towards the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house – all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb with terror. They jostled each other without exchanging look, word, or counsel. The silence of the tomb reigned among the living; nature alone lifted up it’s voice and spoke. Though meeting crowded vehicles taking a direction quite opposite to that which I myself was following, it never even entered my mind that it would perhaps be better for me to follow them. Probably it was the same thing for them. We all hurried blindly on to our fate (Pernin 11).”
This fire was not just contained to Peshtigo and the surrounding vicinity; it had jumped Green Bay and was racing toward Robinsonville. As Fr. Peter Pernin and all of Peshtigo were experiencing the fury of the hurricane of fire, Sister Adele and the residents of Robinsonville would prepare to have their faith tested by this fire.
I will continue the history next Tuesday.