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Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church to be rededicated

The interior Our Lady Angels Parish 3808 W. Iowundergoes restoratiSaturday Dec. 3 2011 Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

The interior of Our Lady of the Angels Parish, 3808 W. Iowa undergoes restoration Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 14, 2012 8:19AM

She remembers it all as if it were yesterday — the searing heat, the choking smoke.

“I was in my sixth-grade classroom when the fire spread,” recalled 64-year-old Arlene Barker, then an 11-year-old student at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School.

“We were trapped in the room, because we couldn’t go out the front door. There was a total ball of fire. And the back door was locked,” she said of that fateful day — Dec. 1, 1958 — when 92 students and three nuns died in a fire.

“We were just kind of stuck in there, with the smoke filling the room, and it was getting really bad. We couldn’t breathe very well anymore, and as good little Catholic children, we said our final act of contrition,” said Barker, who is among the survivors and their families expected at a celebration of the rebirth of Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church at 3800 W. Iowa in West Humboldt Park on Saturday.

“My particular class, we were so blessed. One of my classmates decided to jump out of the window onto the fire escape,” said Barker, of Indianapolis. “It allowed the fire escape to come down, and then a janitor and I think one of the priests — I never got to thank them — climbed up and knocked down the back door with a hatchet. We all exited down the fire escape.”

She added: “As soon as we got down to the bottom, the back draft came in, and our room just exploded. We’d gotten out just in the nick of time.”

Now home to the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, the parish is run by a flowering Franciscan community that established a Catholic outreach to serve the poor within its impoverished, crime-ridden radius. After two years of meticulous renovations, the mission ( celebrates the reopening of the once majestic church that fell into crumbling disrepair and was closed by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1990.

A rededication mass at 4:30 p.m. will be celebrated by Cardinal Francis George.

“I was baptized there in 1947, and grew up in the parish. One of my last memories of the church was the day of the fire, when they shuttled us in there to get us out of the cold,” Barker said. “A year after the fire, we moved away from the parish, as did many people. The neighborhood had become just too sad. You walked around, and there was evidence everywhere of children who’d gone through this.”

The rebuilt school closed in 1999, now leased by a charter school. But the church, a rectory, a convent and the center at 824 N. Hamlin, were all dilapidated and shuttered. In 2005, the cardinal recruited the mission’s leader, “Father Bob” Lombardo of the New York-based Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, to resurrect the parish. And Lombardo did, soliciting help and donations of everything from materials and labor to furniture and food to slowly but steadily rebuild.

The center now serves 900 neighborhood children weekly, as the Kelly Hall YMCA; the mission provides some 700 poor families with food, clothing and other services; and its convent offers retreat space. Barker can’t wait to see the church.

“It was beautiful. It had very good memories for me. In Chicago back then, and I think it’s still this way, you’re identified by your parish, and when somebody asked, you said, ‘I’m from Our Lady of the Angels.’ So although I didn’t live there anymore, it felt like a piece of my childhood died.

“What the mission is doing there is just such a perfect tribute to the angels that went up that day, and I can’t help but think they’ve gotten a little help from above.”

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