For eighteen years of my life, I was raised around the world's largest tombstone. They called it a monument but in reality, it's a tombstone that recognizes the untimely death of over 300 school children.
For those of you that are not familiar with this tragic story, on March 18th, 1937, a natural gas leak that occurred within the New London school building spread gas throughout the entire structure. It is believed that a wood sander was plugged into a wall socket igniting the gas within the air causing an explosion that would destroy the entire school building and just about everyone that was in it.
Growing up around all of this, I've heard the story a thousand times. It's been written about in countless newspapers and now someone has created a film documentary on the disaster. But in my opinion and not to discount the lives of these children that were lost in such a horrible tragedy, they miss the silver within the lining. And to find that lining, you would have to travel all the way to Poland where you would find a young woman by the name of Frances Siedliska. She was a noblewoman born into a wealthy and cultured family who from a very young age was extremely passionate about her relationship with God.
When her father passed away, she consecrated herself to the service of God and became the foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, established in Rome in 1875. Her religious name would become 'Mary of Jesus the Good Shepherd.'
In 1885, Mother Mary would receive a request to bring her community to America in order to minister to the thousands of immigrant Poles who had fled to the new land in search of a better life. They arrived in New York on July 4th, 1885 and proceeded to Chicago, IL, where they set about establishing schools and caring for orphans.
The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth would continue to grow in numbers while serving all over the United States in different capacities. However to an East Texan, the most important role would be the opening of Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, Texas on the day of March 18th, 1937. (now Trinity Mother Frances Hospital)
The initiation of the hospital movement dates back to committee meetings held for the purpose of selecting proposed PWA projects. And believe it or not, the hospital was moved to the back of the line and would become third on the dock for construction. However, largely through the insistence of a local architect, Shirley Simons, it was moved to the front of the line and would be the first project to complete.
Dr. C.C. McDonald launched the movement in organizing the physicians of Smith County while Father S.A. Samperi, Pastor of the Immaculate Conception Church, placed the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in charge while moving them from Chicago.
As the story goes, the 60 bed hospital wasn't even scheduled to be open until March 19th but would swing wide open the doors in order to receive and treat over 100 victims from the New London explosion. The Sisters and Doctors worked day and night for two days straight without any sleep rendering assistance and aid to children and teachers while the entire civilized world grieved.
To find a silver lining in such a horrific story is a difficult task. The idea that something positive could come out of something so tragic seems almost impossible but we must never forget the eighteen women who rose to the occasion. Through their leadership, they managed to bring an entire community together while working tirelessly to save lives. And in the end, they will be seen as that silver lining that God used to aid in the darkest of East Texas days.
For the record and to remember them by, the Sisters that worked so hard in helping so many children are as follows:
Mother Ambrose Bochenek
Sister Alphonsina Stachowicz
Sister Almira Szpak
Sister Imelda Zapchenk
Sister Leonica Wirkus
Sister Consuela Pulkowska
Sister Lucita Zmuda
Sister Anastasia Michalowicz
Sister Armella Drika
Sister Simplicia Biunlowska
God bless the memory of these women.
New London Monument Photo by Ric Moore