New York City, NY Orphan Asylum Fire, Apr 1881



Shortly before 9 o'clock last evening a fire broke out in a three-story frame building in the grounds of the St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum, a Roman Catholic institution, at Eight-ninth street and Avenue A, which was used as a nursery and dormitory for the younger children. Although the fire gave rise to a great deal of excitement, the children were removed in safety. Three inmates of the institution were overcome by fright, and are under care of physicians. The main building of the asylum is a five-story brick structue on the north side of Eighty-ninth street. It belongs to the Redemptorist Fathers, and is under the immediate charge of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Seventeen Sisters of the order are in charge of over 800 orphans. The Sister Superior is Sister MARY PAULA. The structure in which the fire occurred came into the possession of the institution some 20 years ago. It was then known as the Prime mansion. In it were housed last evening 90 children of both sexes, whose ages ranged from 3 to 7 years. On the lower floor was the infirmary, where were a number of sick children. In the basement was the bake shop. The ovens in the bake shop had been recently rebuilt and a hotter fire than usual was built in them to test their baking qualities and to dry them thoroughly. The flue from the ovens runs through the house on the south side of the building from the basement to the roof. This flue was not sufficiently protected, and the unusual heat set fire to the surrounding wood work.
The fire was first discovered in one of the dormitories on the second floor of the building on the southern end. One of the sisters in the adjoining rooms heard an infant crying and entered the room to find it filled with smoke, which poured out of the crevices in the wall and flooring. She gave an alarm, and the other Sisters came quickly from the main building to her aid, and assisted in taking the children into the main building, which is over a hundred feet away. People in the adjoining dwellings ran to the asylum and rendered effective assistance in caring for the infants. A letter carrier, who lives in the vicinity and carries a fire key, sent out an alarm and ran to the Twenty-third Precinct Police Station in Eighty-eighth street. The reserve platoon hastened to the building, and on arriving found the utmost excitement prevailing. But their presence contributed greatly to allay the excitement and prevent accidents. All the children were removed safely, and not one of them received an injury. The main building housed over 200 children, who were about to retire for the night when the alarm was given. The children became very much excited and were fast getting beyond the control of the Sisters when the Sister Superior with rare presence of mind, ordered them into the chapel, and kept them there singing and praying until all danger was over.
The alarm was responded to by engines Nos. 22 and 44, and Hook and Ladder Companies Nos. 13 and 16, under Chief ORR and Chief WILHELM, and by the East Side Insurance Patrol. After they arrived, the flames, within 15 or 20 minutes, were extinguished. The damage to the building will not exceed $500. It was found that although no one had been injured, one of the Sisters and two other inmates of the asylum had been prostrated by fright, and were in a serious condition. Sister MARY PIETRA, who had charge of one of the dormitories in the nursery, retained her presence of mind during the crisis and assisted in removing the children to a place of safety, but when the danger was over she became suddenly prostrated, and sank unconscious into the arms of one of her companions. When she was restored to consciousness it was found that the organs of speech were paralyzed. DR. HENRY VON MUSITS, of Lexington avenue, was summoned. He found her condition very critical, and DR. SANDERS, the house physician, was sent for. Two novices names LIZZIE HAY, aged 17, and DORA ZAHN, aged 14, were also prostrated by fright. DORA is suffering from heart disease. Sister MARY PIETRA is of very delicate organization and nervous temperament. She was prostrated by fright in January last, owing to an alarm of fire in the asylum, and she has been in poor health ever since. Up to a late hour last night her condition was unchanged and the attending physicians were unwilling to hazard an opinion as to the result.

The New York Times New York 1881-04-09