Sickness and death, St. Rose's struggles in 1875

Sandy Vasko

    Last time we talked about the earliest history of St. Rose of Lima, and took you through the building of the brick church. For those who wondered where this church was, we have determined that it was on Chicago Street one block west of the old train depot on the north side of the street.
    We also believe that the church plus rectory would probably have taken up more than one lot.
    In 1875 the rectory was occupied by the Rev. Thomas O'Gara, pastor, but also contained the personal belongings and extensive library belonging to a former assistant pastor the Rev. J. A. O'Connor.
    On Friday, March 19, 1875 tragedy struck, when the rectory was burned to the ground. The Wilmington Advocate describes it like this: “At about 1 o'clock on Wednesday morning, our citizens were suddenly aroused by an alarm of fire. Half an four later found the fine parochial residence of the Catholic Church, with nearly all its contents, in a pile of smoldering debris and ashes.
    “The house was occupied by the Rev. O'Gara and servants only, and none knew of the existence of the fire until a large portion of the roof had been consumed. O'Gara had been extremely ill for several days past, and the principal housekeeper had lapsed into a sort of a doze in a chair, when the  fumes of the smoke aroused her to the terrible fact that the house was on fire.
    “Father O'Gara, semi-conscious and helpless, had to be lifted bodily from his sick bed, even while the burning faggots were strewn upon his bed, and it is said that his feet and one hand suffered burns in his rescue.
    “The exact origin of the fire is not positively known. It was doubtless owing to certain defects in the chimney or about the fireplace in the second story.  Much praise is due to many persons at the fire, who worked like horses to prevent its spread.
    “The Hook and Ladder Company, and the Babcock brigade also deserve the gratitude of the public generally. At present writing, Father O'Gara's new quarters are being fitted up in the unoccupied residence of M. F. Peltier, corner of Fulton and Main.”
    Father O'Gara never recovered his full health and died two years later of a long, unidentified illness. The Rev. Francis J. Murtaugh was sent to be assistant pastor quite soon after the fire. Since O'Gara was ill, Murtaugh took over all the duties of pastor. He was 33 years old with a large athletic build, born in Ireland, but ordained in Milwaukee.  
    On July 28th, a hot, humid, miserable day, Murtaugh urged visiting friend, the Rev. T. Murphy, to go with him for a swim in the millrace. Father Murphy said later that Murtaugh was in a strange, somber mood. They walked together through the Catholic cemetery and stopped at the grave of two former priests where they knelt to pray. When Murtaugh arose, tears were streaming from his eyes and he asked his old friend, “Tom, who will pray for us when we are dead?”
    They then went down to the water's edge, took off their clothes, and jumped in. Murphy estimated that the water was about five feet deep and they were about 30 or 40 feet from the south tip of the island.
    Murtaugh was not in the water more than a minute when he went under, never to rise again. Murphy shouted for help.
    The Advocate described the scene, “On Wednesday evening at 8 o'clock, hurried steps were heard in the area of the head of the Island. Upon inquiry we learned that Father Murtaugh is drowned. With scores of others, we grasped a lantern and umbrella and followed the excited crowd and found the terrible truth.
    “The rain came down freely, a dozen lanterns were flitting around while brave men disrobed and were diving in. Still others were shutting off the water, it was known that the race could be drained within two hours. The body was found about 10 o'clock.”
    The funeral of likeable young man was the largest ever held in the city up to that point. It was estimated that 1,500 people attended his funeral. Twelve clergymen participated in the Requiem Mass and the funeral cortege was enormous.
    First came the Wilmington Band, followed by the St. Patrick Benevolent Society and the Ancient Order of Hibernians of Braidwood. Then came the Emerald Beneficial Association of Wilmington, the 12 clergymen preceded by acolytes bearing incense and tapers, the hearse, pall bearers, followed by about 1,000 of the general citizens on foot.  
    Next time we will take the history of St. Rose to the “new” limestone church we see today.