Editor’s note: Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School on Chicago’s West Side. This story was originally published on Dec. 1, 2008.
Fifty years is a long time to cry.
Della Maffiola wept again Sunday as she remembered her son Joseph, killed in the Our Lady of the Angels school fire 50 years ago today.
“It feels like yesterday,” she said.
Joseph, 10, and 91 other students and three nuns who died in the Chicago blaze were remembered in a Sunday mass at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt.
The emotional high point was a reading of names of the dead. There were so many, it took 22 minutes to finish.
Many wept as relatives lit candles in their memory. To see victims’ parents and siblings, many now stooped or gray, was a reminder of the children who never had a chance to grow old.
“It was like going back 50 years,” Maffiola said. “I went back in time. You wait for your child’s name. I couldn’t light the candle. My hands were shaking.”
Some wore lapel photos of their loved ones, forever young, frozen in school pictures and communion poses.
Worshippers listened raptly as Jonathan Cain sang his new song, “The Day They Became Angels.” Cain, a fire survivor, is keyboardist for the rock group Journey.
“I think this is wonderful,” said Barbara Elliott, wearing a photo of her sister Kathleen Mary Carr.
The mass also honored survivors, firefighters, police and medical teams who responded. Joseph Romeo, in kindergarten at Our Lady of the Angels during the blaze, said it prompted him to become a firefighter.
Maffiola has always taken comfort in one thing –– Joseph’s 1958 Christmas present, a spiffy red-and-white bike, was waiting for him under a blanket at home.
She encouraged him to take it out for a spin. He rode it a week before the fire.
“He was happy as a lark,” she said. “I always was grateful he rode his bike before he died.”