Statue honoring victims of Our Lady of the Angels fire returns to site of blaze

Leo Sorce was just 13 years old when he stood across the street watching flames rip through Our Lady of the Angels School in the winter of 1958.

He recalled being surrounded by dozens of his classmates who laid on the ground dying — if not already dead — but he said his inability to remember details of the carnage in front of him was a gift from God.

“My feeling is that we must always remember, we will never forget,” Sorce, 77, said through tears. “We have to honor our classmates and our sisters who lost their lives.”

On Tuesday, a statue memorializing the victims of the Catholic school fire that claimed 95 lives and injured hundreds more returned to the site after more than 20 years.

The Blessed Mother statue was displayed at the Church of the Holy Family, 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd., since 1999. It was moved there after Our Lady of the Angels Parish School closed.

It now sits at the entrance of the newly renovated Mission of Our Lady of the Angels’ Outreach Center. The center is on the grounds of the former school building at 3814 W. Iowa St.

A procession of Chicago Fire Department firetrucks drove the statue from Church of the Holy Family to Mission of Our Lady of the Angels’ Outreach Center on Tuesday afternoon.

Members of the Chicago Fire Department carry the Blessed Mother statue into the newly renovated Mission of Our Lady of the Angels’ Outreach Center in the Humboldt Park neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, May 31, 2022. The Blessed Mother statue, which serves as a memorial for the victims of the 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School, where 92 children and three nuns died and hundreds were injured, was blessed and installed at the outreach center Tuesday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A few dozen parishioners smiled as the firetruck, with its sirens blaring, turned onto Iowa Street with the statue hitched to the front of the truck. Some clapped as others held their cell phone out to record its arrival.

Many are fond of the statue that memorializes the 92 elementary-school students and three nuns killed in the devastating blaze that ravaged Our Lady of the Angels school in 1958. The devastating blaze triggered stricter fire safety codes nationwide.

It took several men to unhitch the 400-pound-marble statue and lift it onto its 200-pound-granite base, which has the names of every victim inscribed on it.

Third grade students from nearby Maternity BVM School sang hymns throughout the ceremony, and once the statue was remounted on its base, one student climbed a step ladder with the help of a firefighter to place a crown made of roses on the statue’s head.

Cardinal Blase Cupich blessed the statue and led parishioners in prayer. He also said the fire was the catalyst for many fire prevention policies in the Chicago area — like sprinkler systems, fire resistant doors and stairwells being closed off.

As for Sorce, he said it is somewhat of a bittersweet moment for him and many other survivors. He’s happy to see the statue home but saddened when he looks at the names of his former classmates.

Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Lombardo, who is the founder and director of Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, stand beside the Blessed Mother statue during its blessing at the newly renovated Mission of Our Lady of the Angels’ Outreach Center in the Humboldt Park neighborhood Tuesday afternoon.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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