St. Amelian’s orphanage survived three fires between 1855 and 1989

December 1, 2011

By Anna Passante

 

A drawing of the original 1854 orphanage. — Image courtesy St. Francis of Assisi Convent

Three fires ravaged St. Aemilian’s Orphanage, but after each fire the orphanage rose from the ashes like the mythical phoenix and was reborn. Surprisingly no one was injured or killed in any of the three fires. The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who ran the orphanage, probably attributed the lack of injuries or fatalities to the orphanage’s namesake, St. Aemilian, the protector of orphans.

The second building prior to the 1895 fire. — photo courtesy St. Francis of Assisi Convent

The first fire took place in the spring of 1855, a year after St. Aemilian’s had moved from downtown Milwaukee (E. Wells and N. Van Buren streets) to the grounds of the newly built St. Francis Seminary on present-day S. Lake Drive. (At the time the site was in the Town of Lake, but in 1951 was incorporated as the city of St. Francis.) A carpenter started this fire while heating glue. It was devastating. Only a few walls remained, with a damage estimate of $2,000.

The burned-out buildings after the 1895 fire. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

The second fire happened 40 years later, starting in the printing office on Dec. 11, 1895. Foreman Joseph Leutcher and several of the orphan boys were finishing up a printing job, and around 6pm one of the boys tipped over a kerosene lamp. Town of Lake fire engines No. 7 and No. 12 responded to the blaze, as well as two engines from Bay View. By 8pm, nearly the entire population of St. Francis and several hundred people from Milwaukee were at the fire scene.

Students and priests set up a bucket brigade. Staff, students, and volunteers threw bedding, bedsteads, dressers, and clothing out the windows. Bystanders, often hindered by deep snow, carried the articles to safety. Water from the orphanage’s artesian well was used up in the first hour, so the firefighters connected their hoses to the well at the nearby St. Francis Seminary. Fanned by high winds, the fire threatened the seminary and convent buildings as well as the nearby village. Luckily, the wind shifted, sparing these buildings. By 2:30am the fire was out. The main building, the chapel, and the print office building were totaling destroyed. All that remained was the 1894 addition.

Damage totaled $60,000, insurance covering $53,000. All of the 26 staff and the 224 resident boys escaped unharmed.

Rebuilding started immediately. A new main building and chapel were connected to the surviving building and dedicated on June 28, 1896. The cost was $40,000.

The third building prior to the 1930 fire. — photo courtesy St. Francis of Assisi Convent

The burned-out buildings after the 1930 fire. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

The third fire at the rebuilt complex happened on May 22, 1930. At 1am three men and a woman were driving down S. Lake Drive past the orphanage when they saw a fire on the south end of the complex. They threw bricks at the windows to get the attention of the sleeping residents, luckily targeting staff bedrooms. The nuns took charge of the 190 boys but “found that escape from the orphanage was cut off in several directions,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Still, within 10 minutes the nuns directed them to the fire escapes and safety. Father Joseph Baier was called a hero, because he felt every bed in the dormitories to make sure no boy was left behind.

Flames shot 100 feet into the air and were seen several miles away. The fire, fanned by high winds, was already out of control by the time firemen from Town of Lake and Milwaukee responded. All the buildings were destroyed—the chapel, the dormitories, and the school rooms. Again, there were no injuries or deaths. Damage was set at $350,000. According to news accounts, fire investigators determined that the fire was of an incendiary nature, but the cause was never officially determined.

Conditions were crowded after the 1930 fire. After the 1930 fire, some of the boys were housed at the convent. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

 

Beds line the seminary gym to accommodate boys after the 1930 fire. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

The younger children were fed at St. Francis Convent, and sleeping quarters were set up for the orphans in the seminary gymnasium. Shortly after, the orphans were moved to a former Lutheran Seminary building owned by the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese at 60th and Lloyd streets in Milwaukee and later to a summer camp, Camp Villa Jerome, at Friess Lake. Land for a new orphanage was purchased in 1937 at 89th and West Capitol Drive in Milwaukee, but it took nearly 20 years for a new building.

In 1989 St. Aemilian merged with Lakeside Children’s Center and is now called St. Aemilian-Lakeside. Presently the center provides foster care, education, and mental health services to children, families, and adults.

Nothing remains of the old St. Francis orphanage except for two old pillars along the St. Francis Seminary driveway that stand sentry at the old entrance to the asylum.

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  1. Bay View Compass article features St. Aemilian-Lakeside historic fires « St. Aemilian-Lakeside, Inc. on Mon, 5th Dec 2011 11:41 am 

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