Blaze destroys historic buildings at Catholic high school seminary

Mount Calvary, Wis.

An early morning fire Saturday in the Milwaukee archdiocese destroyed historic buildings at St. Lawrence High School Seminary in Mount Calvary, one of the few remaining high school seminaries in the country.

No one was injured in the five-alarm blaze that leveled the seminary's original chapel and the adjoining St. Joseph Hall, both built in 1873 atop a tall hill overlooking a region known as the Holy Land east of Fond du Lac.

Firefighters from 41 agencies in Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Winnebago and Calumet counties responded to the fire shortly after daybreak.

"We received a call at 5:30 a.m. of smoke in the building. Responding firefighters found heavy smoke coming from the building," said Mount Calvary Fire Chief Mark Petrie. "Our firefighters entered the building only to find heavy fire, so we backed out and went into a defensive mode."

Petrie said firefighters successfully focused on saving the adjacent Laurentianum building, which houses the school's administrative offices and is connected to the destroyed buildings by a brick-encased elevator shaft.

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He said no cause had been determined yet for the fire, but it most likely started on the first floor near the elevator.

The construction of the buildings, which included hard-to-reach pockets of space created during earlier remodeling projects, and the sheer height of the building perched on top of the hill posed challenges for firefighters, Petrie said.

Firefighters contained the flames after two hours but spent all morning fighting small fires in tight spots necessitating demolition of parts of the buildings not destroyed by fire.

The blaze hit as 40 band students from the seminary were less than two hours from leaving for a solo and ensemble contest in nearby Kohler.

St. Joseph Hall contained the school's band and choir departments.

"These kids had been practicing their solos and ensembles for weeks, but we had to pull out of the contest because they couldn't get their instruments or music," Capuchin Franciscan Fr. John Holly, rector and president, told the Catholic Herald, a publication that serves the Catholic community in southeastern Wisconsin.

Freshman Ben Triplett of Annandale, Minn., had no choice but to stand and watch his dreams of winning an award, and his tenor saxophone, go up in flames.

"That was my own saxophone. I owned it," said Triplett, who plays in the band and jazz band. "I just can't believe something like this happened here. We woke up to sirens, looked out our windows and yelled, 'Guys. That building is on fire.' "

In addition to the school's music program, St. Joseph Hall also housed religion classrooms and faculty offices.

As firefighters methodically tore down still-burning St. Joseph Hall, with help from a large excavator, Fr. Bob Wheelock, who uses a walker to get around campus, turned his walker and sat dejectedly on an attached seat watching the scene of destruction.

"That excavator is parked right on top of what was my office," said the priest, who is a spiritual adviser to the school's 178 male students. "I've lost everything, all my notes and a Bible that probably represents 35 to 40 years a biblical studying with everything underlined. Now it's all gone. It's quite a jolt."

This isn't the first time a destructive fire hit the St. Lawrence campus.

Capuchin friars started the Convent Latin School at Mount Calvary in 1860 and founded St. Lawrence Seminary in 1882.

On Christmas Day in 1868, a fire destroyed the friars' monastery. The fire hit during a typhoid fever epidemic among the seminary students.

Students were allowed to stay in a newly-constructed brick building at the Mount Carmel Convent, operated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame a short distance from the seminary.

The convent closed in 2013 after 160 years, a blow to this small farming community that now must deal with another historic loss.

"Historically, these are buildings that have served us well," Holly said. "They've had a number of incarnations over their 141-year existence."

"It's a great loss. The buildings were very much in use seven days a week," he said. "But we'll make other arrangements for our classes and figure out what to do in the future -- to rebuild or whatever. We'll be all right."

[Steve Wideman freelances for the Catholic Herald, a publication that serves the Catholic community in southeastern Wisconsin.]

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July 14-27, 2017