Special Segment: Rise of the Angels

December 19, 2011 (CHICAGO)

After years of neglect, a new project is taking shape at a site that many know only for the terrible events of that December day.

For many Chicagoans, memories of the Our Lady of the Angels School fire has faded with the passing years. But for a group of survivors ABC7 recently sat down with the images are still fresh as day. They were eighth grade classmates in December of 1958.

"I've never seen smoke as black as that in my life," said survivor Annette Szafran.

"It got hot very fast," said Rosalie Lutska. "When they said kids were dying on the other side, I thought, well who? Not realizing that they were talking about the rooms that we were in."

Fire tore through their classroom at Our Lady of the Angels school.

"I remember the girls screaming," said survivor William O'Brien. "I turned around and those doors were already smoldering and smoke, the fire was about to burst through those doors." Watch an extended interview with some survivors

Some jumped out of the windows; others were saved by a priest. All still have vivid painful memories.

"You just couldn't believe it, I mean one day one of my best friends I walked to school that day and then he was gone," said survivor John Molitor. "Everyone was just stunned."

"People seeing kids walking down the street and their kids weren't there anymore, it sure tore that neighborhood apart," O'Brien.

"To me, this is hallowed ground, it's holy ground," said Father Bob Lombardo.

For years, the neighborhood surrounding Our Lady of the Angels slowly deteriorated. Many families who lost children found it too painful to stay. The archdiocese closed the church and eventually the rebuilt Catholic school as well. Over time, the church fell into total disrepair.

"Water damage, you name it, it was damaged, broken windows, the whole nine yards," said Father Lombardo. "It was a wreck."

Father Lombardo is leading a transformation at Our Lady of the Angels. Since last May there has been remarkable progress, local volunteers -- many from trade unions -- came together to restore the church. They redid the roof, ceiling and put in a brand new tile floor where restored pews will soon sit.

"This is the miracle on Iowa Street. I never in a million years dreamed that this would go this quickly," said Father Lombardo.

The basement has been completely gutted for renovation. Fr. Lombardo says the church will be up and running early next year.

"This really is new life here at Our Lady of the Angels, and how important it is," said Father Lombardo.

It was Cardinal Francis George who sent Fr. Lombardo to the West Side with a dream.

"The hope is that it will be a place of hope, the place will be always some place where people who are dispirited can come and find new hope," said Cardinal George.

As part of the revitalization, the mission partnered with the YMCA and the Chicago Food Depository to launch an after school program in the former parish center. It provides a daily hot meal for neighborhood kids and runs sports leagues in a completely renovated gym.

"What we're trying to do is give them a safe haven," said Stan Lewis, executive director, Kelly Hall YMCA.

"I come in, I know that I can see good faces and take away all my pain," said Kenard Jarrett, 17.

And in some way the pain of half a century ago is not forgotten but fading a bit more with the promise of new beginnings.

"Those two blocks there, that will impact that community," said Molitor.

"This is a real anchor to that neighborhood," said O'Brien.

"Someone looked at our parish and decided it shouldn't go away, it should remain alive," said Szafran.

Since Father Lombardo arrived at Our Lady of the Angels in 2005, his team has also reopened the old convent as a prayer center and restored the rectory into livable space. The church will open in January for private Masses and gatherings and will be formally rededicated after Easter.

Copyright © 2023 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.