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St. Clair County, IL
Convent of the Immaculate Conception

Submitted by K.T.


Institution Of The Immaculate Conception.
This old educational institution, long known as the Ladies' Academy of Belleville, has an interesting history. In 1846, the Rev. G. H. Ostlangenberg, a self-sacrificing Catholic priest, organized into a school the children of the few Catholic families in that vicinity. This school he held in the basement of their little church. He had many difficulties, however, besides pecuniary ones. There were few children and there were very few competent teachers. The faithful priest had to work hard to make the expenses of the first school. The teachers had much to contend with; for they had to have almost as many classes as there were children. The children were of different nationalities— German, French, English, Irish, American, Bohemian. By patient perseverance and faithfulness, Father Ostlangenberg overcame these difficulties, and firmly established the school. Bishop Alton, who succeeded him, furthered the work, and, in 1857 took up a collection for the building of a convent and schoolrooms for the girls of the congregation. The building was 107 feet in front, forty feet deep, and thirty feet high—the middle part of the present "Institute of the Immaculate Conception." The cost of the undertaking was $8,437.09, of which $800 was contributed by citizens of Belleville, $5,000 by St. Peter's congregation, and the balance by the Sisters of the Mother House in Milwaukee, Wis., who also furnished teachers. In September, 1859, Sister Mary Jerome, the Superioress, with two Sisters arrived in Belleville, and they had not only to teach, but also to finish and furnish the structure out of their own means. In October, 1859, they opened the school with seventy-five girls. The boys were in charge of a male teacher, and had their class-room in the basement of the old church. Soon afterward, a school-room for boys was built on the lot on which St. Peter's church now stands. From there it was moved in 1863 to the lot which is now the site of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. As the number of pupils increased, from year to year, more teachers and more room were needed. In 1863, the Sisters took charge of the smaller boys in the old church building, which was, by this time, divided into three large school-rooms. In 1879, the boys' school was removed to the schoolrooms of the St. Agnes Orphan Asylum. The larger boys were put in charge of Clemens Willebrink, organist of St. Peter's Church. About 1876, a kindergarten was established with about sixty pupils. In 1880 or 1881, a school was opened for the English children, boys and girls, in which the English branches only were taught. Besides the regular school curriculum, pupils were instructed in Bible history, the Catechism and singing. Gradually the institution increased in magnitude, efficiency and importance and, in time, it became a favorite school with parents desirous that their daughters should have the best opportunities for polite instruction. The boarding school for young ladies, known as "the Institute of the Immaculate Conception," offered every advantage of similar institutions. Feeling bound to respond to the confidence reposed in them by parents and guardians, the Sisters gave their pupils a Christian and thorough education. The course of study pursued embraced the English, German and French languages, with all useful and ornamental branches taught to young ladies. Many ladies of Belleville and vicinity received their musical education in that historic institution.

The Convent Of Notre Dame is the successor of the "Institute of the Immaculate Conception." During the night of January 5, 1884, the institute building burned down. This was one of the worst calamities that ever happened in Belleville; for Mother Jerome, several Sisters and a number of boarders lost their lives. The convent was rebuilt in modest style, but never regained the prestige it had had; and for a time the boarding school was closed. The Sisters devoted themselves to work in the parochial schools. Here they instruct pupils in music and the other arts. There are, at present, twenty-two Sisters in the convent, with Sister Rudolpha as Superioress.
[Source: "Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois", Volume 2 edited by A.S. Wilderman and A.A. Wilderman, 1907]

Fire of 1884

Convent of the Immaculate Conception Burned.
St. Louis, Jan 7 - At half-past 10 on Saturday night, death in its most horrible form visited the institute of the Immaculate Conception at Belleville, Ill., and touched with its icy fingers the cheeks of many of its inmates, and closed their eyes in eternal slumber. The lives of those who went out amid the flames and smoke were yet in the full of sweetness and gentleness and promise, and yesterday morning many a happy home here and elsewhere were rudely awakened to the agonizing reality of their irreparable loss. At the hour above indicated the flames were discovered through a window in the institute by August Love, a watchman employed in the Harris machine works, located in Belleville. Immediately he rushed across the street and began a fierce assault upon the convent door. Those who were awake within the convent walls, thinking the noise was occasioned by the disorderly conduct of tipsy revelers, paid no attention to the warning beyond admonishing the wakeful watchman to desist. At least, such is the story heard this morning. In this view of the case the occupants paid no heed to the labor of Love to rouse them to a sense of their danger. The latter, failing in his efforts, hurried across to the Harris machine works and the peals of the alarm bell he therein sounded were the first intimations of the impending calamity the sisters received. About the same time a son of Dr. Kobe who had seen the fire reached his father's home and gave the alarm to occupants of that household. In the meantime the flames were advancing to the destruction of the building with frightful rapidity. The streets were deserted. The night was clear and bitterly cold. The air was frigid and its effect paralyzing in the extreme. Those in the city who had not returned to bed, were rapidly made acquainted with the dread information the alarm occasioned by the first news, augmented by the knowledge that the fire department of the city was of primitive design, and inefficient under the most favorable circumstances. It consists of three steamers manned by a force of five men each. None of whom sleep at the engine-house, with a solitary exception. Added to this there is no hook and ladder truck, when the alarm was sounded it brought the force into service after the lapse of time that was valuable beyond comparison, and it was not until half an hour after the fire was discovered that the engines reached the scene of destruction and death. When the first stream was turned onto the building the fire had secured a footing in the chapel wing, and smoke and flames were pouring from the windows in heavy volume, the middle wing was in a blaze, and the main entrance was the connecting link between these sacrifices to destruction. And here is where the inefficiency of the department was manifest. No attempts were made to rouse the inmates sleeping in the wake of the fire, no effort was made to take a steamer into the building and no ladders were raised to save the women and babes struggling and strangling and suffocating but a few feet away. Soon the forms of women and children appeared at the windows, their shrieks and piteous appeals for help heard above the roaring flames and falling timbers. They retreated, but returned to the windows, and gazing out into the street where upturned faces greeted their appeals, no hand being raised to save them. Then they began to throw themselves out. From a height of three stories from the street, they plunged to cruel death below.
First came sister Marcass, followed in rapid succession by sisters Rapearla, Madreda, Styliti, Magdalena, Pascholis and others. While this horrible scene was in progress of rehearsal, sister Galacia maintained her presence of mind with rare exception. She taught the boys' day school, and was sleeping in the second story. Upon being roused from her repose, she seemed to realize the situation in an instant and came forth from her dormitory like Pallas from the brow of Jove, armed with nerve and resolution for the contest. After meeting the elements in every form she huddled a number of the pupils about her and guiding them down through the burning embers which opposed her way reached the basement with her charge and escaped by the rear of the building. Miss May Campbell stood at the window above the main entrance, imploring men below to save her. As the flames advanced she slipped out upon the window sill; the flames crowded her inch by inch, and there was no hope of her salvation. At this juncture a man ran upon the steps and shouted to her to jump. "I will catch you," he added, and with a hope born of desperation she threw herself headlong in the direction of his outstretched arms. She struck upon the steps and was carried across to the harvester works in the last pangs of dissolution.
The scenes at this point was sickening. Sister Manessa was found by Dr. Kohl impaled upon a picket of the fence in front, and as the light broke out afresh the body of Miss Lou Mate, of Tamaro, Ill.,was discovered near by, as also that of sister Madrida at the west corner of the building. Sister Mary Jerome perished at her post. The last time she was seen alive was in the sisters dormitory. Nearly twelve hours subsequently her incinerated remains were found and their identity established by the peculiar texture of the underwear.
Among the dead is the daughter of Col. Thomas Bailey, miss Virginia Heinzeman residing in Belleville; Miss Susie Werner, of St. Louis, Miss Gertrude Strunk, Miss Mary Manning, of St. Louis; Miss Mamie Pulse, of Columbia and Miss Lizzie Isch. Nearly all of these were identified by marked underclothing; the last named by a gold ring carrying three diamonds, which was discovered on the third finger of her left hand, shrunken and discolored by the flames. The scene this morning is one of dread and loathsome in the last degree. The bodies and portions of dead bodies recovered from the embers are loaded into wagons and on shutters covered with tarpaulins. As the labors of searchers are rewarded, the parents and friends of the missing, hasten to the spot in the hope that they will be able to identify it. The corner has arrived and will begin the inquest without delay. it is now well settled that the fire had its origin in the furnace, and when discovered the floor immediately above was in flames, and as stated by the time the alarm was sounded all avenues of escape were cut off.

List of Dead
Minnie Bailey, May Campbell, Lizzie Isch, Agnes Scaling, Martha Mauntell, Laura Thompson, L. Luntt, Susie Weimar, Lottie Pierson, Amelia Leonard, Hilda Hammed, Marie Bien, Virgie Heinzelman, Katie Urbana, Mary Bartells, Mary Manning, Mamie Pulse, Gertrude Strunck, Delphi Schlernezauer, Josie Plouder.

Daisy Ebberman, Belleville, severe contusion; Miss Brink, broken foot, Miss Lou Mate, spinal injuries and cut scalp. Miss Schneider, Mascoutah, bruised; Sister Stylites of Louisville, back injured- cannot recover; Sister Manessa, fracture of right leg; Sister Repearto, compound fracture of right leg - amputation probable; Sister Paschalis, injured back and broken wrist.
Missing Sisters - Sister Mary Jerome, Sister Madrida, Sister Edwina, Sister Angelia.

List of the Saved
The following is a list of the saved: Proxie Schlernizeur, Mamie Fitzgerald, Anna Frankie, Maggie Donohue, Orra Montgomery, Emily Fournie. On this floor also were the following candidates for the veil, who escaped: Miss Josephine, Miss Bridget, Miss Johanna, Miss (Ellen) Gretchen, Miss Eliza.
[The Milwaukee Journal, Jan 7, 1884]

January 8:
Scenes at Belleville
The Coroner's Inquest - The Watchman's Terrible Blunder
St. Louis, Jan 8 - The coroner's inquest over the bodies of those burned in the Belleville fire was resumed this morning. The evidence adduced so far includes the testimony of sisters, and that of Love, the watchman at the machine works, by whom the fire was first discovered. The sisters united in the statement that they were awakened suddenly by a sensation of suffocation, and rushed to the corridors only to be driven back by the heat and smoke. The manner of their escape has already been published. The watchman, Love, is said to be guilty of a terrible blunder in failing to sound the alarm when he first discovered the flames. Instead of doing so, he hurried tot he residence of James Stout, a block ?atam, and aroused him. The two returned to the convent and later the alarm was turned in. The incidents of yesterday were heart-rending. Miss Horn, of Duquoin, Ill., who was reported saved was subsequently found among the missing and the sad news was communicated to her father, who reached Belleville in the afternoon with clothing for one whom he supposed was waiting to return his embraces. Col. Bailey, of this city, has lost his daughter. Mr. Scaling, also of this city, sustains the loss of two daughters, both young ladies. In every instance the bodies recovered are burned beyond recognition, so that the only chance to recognize them rests upon the finding of a piece of jewelry or a fragment of clothing. The funeral of the four sisters that perished will be determined upon to-day. They will be held at St. Peter's church, Rev. Father Abbelin, chaplain of the mother house at Milwaukee, officiating. Those who were injured are all doing well and will recover.
The sister superior, Mother Mary Jerome, had given all her life to the service of her church. She was known in her young girlhood as Barbara Heil, and was born 44 years ago in Pittsburg. Her Parents were wealthy people. She passed through the academic course of the Sisters of Mercy at Baltimore, Md., and entered the Convent of the Congregation of Notre Dame at Milwaukee, when 16 years of age, as a novice. When her novitiate was completed she was sent by the superioress to New Orleans. She remained there but a few years, being next assigned to Belleville in 1859 as the superioress of the new convent and academy of the Notre Dame society. She was a most unselfish and amiable woman, beloved by every one who knew her.
In addition to the large convent at Belleville, Mother Jerome founded several other houses of the society in southern Illinois, and exercised through the delegation of the Mother General, of Milwaukee, protectionary jurisdiction over the several convents south of Milwaukee. throughout her jurisdiction, where she was so well known and so well beloved, the sorrow will be limitless.

Sister Moderata, who was almost instantly killed by jumping from the third-story window on the west side of the building, was from Wauwatosa, Milwaukee county. Her name was Jennie Reilly. She entered the congregation of Notre Dame at Milwaukee in 1872, and was assigned to Belleville in 1877. At the late convent she taught the higher branches, and always took a remarkable interest in the welfare of the pupils she loved so dearly. She also, like the mother superior, acted the part of a true Christian, and sought her pupils through the flame and smoke in order to warn them of the approaching danger. She did not give up the search until forced to do so by the intense heat, and then jumped downward to her death. Her name should be borne on the roll of martyrs.

Sister Angelia was born in New Orleans. Her name was Margaret Shanahan. She entered the convent at Milwaukee in 1858 and was assigned to Belleville, together with Sister Jerome, in the following year. She was a lay sister and was greatly esteemed by those who knew her.
[The Milwaukee Journal, Jan 8, 1884]

Jan 9:
The Belleville Horror
St. Louis, Jan 9 - Thus far 23 bodies have been recovered from the ruins of the convent at Belleville. The work of overhauling the debris is half completed, and as the lines of hallway have to be gone over, the horrible suspicion arises that more lives were lost than has been stated. The funeral of the sisters and the unidentified dead will occur this afternoon from St. Peter's church, Bishop Boltes officiating. The injured are at St. Elizabeth's hospital and doing well.
[The Milwaukee Journal, Jan 9, 1884]


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