Monday, January 28, 2013

I remember ...

     I was in my sophomore year of high school at Saint Vincent Prep School in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a school run by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey  It was a bitterly cold day fifty years ago today.  Our diocesan minor seminarians lived at Saint Joseph Hall Residence about five miles from school, and traveled there daily by school bus.  We pulled up to Saint Vincent to a bit of activity which we thought might be a "fire drill", having just returned to school from a winter break.  The bus dropped us off on campus, and we were directed to the auditorium/gymnasium building called Sportsman's Hall.  It was on the walk to that building that we first noticed the smoke.  Saint Vincent was on fire.

     Once we arrived at Sportsman's Hall we could see the smoke and fire, and realized that the main heart of the monastic community and the campus, including much of the Prep, buildings that had been there since the earliest days of the establishment of Saint Vincent in 1846, were threatened.  All we could do was watch.

     That was a devastating day for Saint Vincent and the entire area.  The monks lost the most - their monastery, belongings and for many their work and research.  Symbols of the campus, for instance the bell tower at the heart of the complex, were ravaged by fire, with the three bells crashing to the ground and the brick exterior left as an unsteady shell that had to be demolished.

     The blessing came in the fact that no lives were lost, the beautiful basilica church was saved, and that the fire eventually provided the catalyst for a building program that has served the Saint Vincent Community well in the last fifty years.

     We waited at Sportsman's Hall until Father Leonard Sanesi, our rector at Saint Joseph Hall, could arrange transportation back to Saint Joe's, where we called our folks and were given a week or so off before classes resumed elsewhere on campus.  It was a morning that I will not forget.   There is a humorous irony in a line of the old Alma Mater of the Prep (check out line five below), which, if memory serves me, went like this:

Hail to thee, Saint Vincent Prep,
Alma Mater, mother kind,
we your sons with every step
hold you dear in heart and mind.
Tower of learning ever burning,
font of beauty, truth and good,
lead us on to God and glory,
one in peace and brotherhood.

     The Saint Vincent Community will remember this 50th anniversary with a Vesper Service this evening and a tribute honoring the multitude of fire departments and emergency personnel who were there that day.  They have published a book on the fire which I can't wait to see.   They are a courageous and resilient group of men.

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