(This is the second of six stories about the St. Francis School fire in December 1899, when 12 girls burned to death in one of saddest chapters of the Quincy community’s history.)
The morning of Dec. 22 dawned clear and cold. With just three days to go until Christmas, excitement could be felt in the air.
At the Koesyans’ home on the comer of 12th and Vine (now College), the girls were so excited they were just about popping out of their skins. Lillian’s mother stooped down in front of her daughter admiringly.
“Promise you’ll be careful with it? You’ll hang it up when you get there and come straight home after school?” she said.
“I promise,” Lillian said, as Mama buttoned the last button of her beautiful green wool coat. It wasn’t really her coat. It belonged to her older sister, Emma, who was 14 years old.
She had graduated from St. Francis School the previous spring and was working as an assistant to a midwife. With her earnings, she had bought this lovely new coat, something Mama could never do. It had been hard to make ends meet since Papa died eight years ago, even though Mama worked so hard. So Emma and Mama had agreed Lillian could wear the coat today because it was such a special day.
Not only was it the last day of school before Christmas vacation, but today was the dress rehearsal for the Christmas pageant at St. Francis School to be held the day after Christmas. Mama and the other parents wouldn’t get to see the pageant until next Tuesday evening, Dec. 26. On this afternoon, they were going to perform their program for the rest of the school on the big stage in the big hall.
Lillian’s sister Clara was in the pageant, too, but Clara was only 9 and Lillian was 11, so Lillian got to wear the new coat.
The sisters left the house and chattered all the way to school. What should they get Mama for Christmas? Maybe a new scarf from J. Kespohl & Co., or maybe one of those nickel tea kettles they had seen in the window of Strool’s Hardware store … the teakettle next to the Flexible Flyer sled. Oh, how the girls wanted that beautiful wooden sled with the red stripes and the shiny runners. What fun they could have on Quincy’s hills! It hadn’t snowed yet, but the river was frozen nearly thick enough for people to walk across to Missouri, so one day soon it would snow. Maybe even by Christmas.
In what seemed like no time at all, the girls were at the front steps of the school. Friends Bernadina Freund and Cecelia VonderHaar were just arriving, too.
“Oh, what a pretty coat!” Bernadina said to Lillian. They also were in the play, and they were carrying bags, just like Clara and Lillian, with their costumes in them.
Cecelia was going to be an angel in the manger scene. In her bag she had a nightgown and angel wings made of gauzy material. Bernadina was going to be a lamb in the manger scene. She also had a nightgown in her bag, along with a lamb cap her mother had sewn. What really made her and all the other little girls in the nativity scene look like lambs was the cotton batting they had sewn onto their nightgowns. It was the material their mothers used for the insides of their quilts, white and soft and fluffy.
The four girls went into school together. This was going to be a wonderful day!
Lillian went straight to the cloak room and hung up her coat, just like Mama had told her to. Clara went to her classroom. Both of them tried to concentrate on their lessons, but it was impossible, even though Clara’s teacher was Sister Theotima. Everybody thought she was one of the best teachers in the school. She was just 29 years old, lively and full of enthusiasm. The children could tell how much she loved them, and they loved her back.
Then finally it was time.
Sister Theotima led the class up the stairs to the auditorium on the third floor. Children were filing in from every classroom, and soon the auditorium was filled with 500 children, all bubbling like a pot ready to boil over. The girls in Sister Theotima’s nativity scene would put their pageant on at the end, so Sister had them sit together to watch the other pageants. At exactly 1 p.m., Father Andrew Butzkeuben stepped out on the stage. The room grew quiet.
“Merciful God, we thank you for the gift of your son, Jesus Christ. Bless these children and help them grow in service to you,” the priest said. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen.”
Then the curtain opened, and the entertainments began.
It was December 22nd.
Carolyn Freas Rapp is a writer, storyteller, book lover, traveler, and mother of three grown children. She lives with her husband, Michael Rapp, in McLean, Virginia. She also is the author of Garden Voices: Stories of Women & Their Gardens, published by Water Dance Press.
Copyright © Carolyn Freas Rapp and Muddy River News
Thanks to the Quincy Public Library for allowing use of images from the Quincy Area Historic Photo Collection.
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