MOUNT CALVARY — An early morning fire on Saturday, March 8, destroyed the two oldest buildings on the St. Lawrence Seminary High School campus in Mount Calvary. St. Lawrence, about 60 miles north of Milwaukee, is one of the few remaining high school seminaries in the country.
No one was injured in the 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, the main building, which houses the school’s administrative offices and three stories of classrooms, and is connected to the destroyed buildings by a brick-encased elevator shaft.
That elevator shaft most likely prevented significant damage to the administration building, Petrie said.
Petrie said no cause has been determined for the fire, but it most likely started on the first floor near the elevator.
Petrie said 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.
“The hydrant system in town was tapped out so we had to get water from area lakes and ponds. We had quite few fire engines pumping water up the hill. That was very challenging,” 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,” said rector and president, Capuchin Fr. John Holly.
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.’”
Fr. Holly said the fire isn’t expected to affect classes. The students start spring break at noon on Friday.
Capuchin Fr. Bob Wheelock, who serves as a spiritual advisor to the school’s 178 male students, said they hope to open the main building – the Laurentianum – for classes after the students return from vacation. It was closed after the fire to be cleaned and sanitized after being exposed to what he said could have been “highly toxic fumes,” and because of water damage in the basement.
“We have classrooms all over,” Fr. Wheelock said. “There are classrooms in the woodshop. There are classrooms in the wrestling room. … They’re all over the campus, wherever they could put some desks, they put desks and moved them in the buildings that were safe and away from the 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. 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 Fr. Wheelock. “I’ve lost everything, all my notes and a Bible that probably represents 35 to 40 years of biblical studying with everything underlined. Now, it’s all gone. It’s quite a jolt.”
He said he hopes to get some of his writings back that were saved on his computer thanks to volunteerfirefighters, employees at St. Lawrence Seminary, who knew to go down to the basement to grab the hard drives where files are backed up each day.
Fr. Wheelock said the faculty offices have temporarily been relocated to the Weisbrod Room where faculty meetings are normally held.
Fr. Wheelock said band director John Ahlstrom tried to access the music room, but was turned back by flames.
“Now, all his instruments are gone,” Fr. Wheelock said.
Five students’ instruments were spared damage, thanks to Ahlstrom’s offer the previous evening to store them in his car so they didn’t have to load them in the morning, Fr. Wheelock said.
Ahlstrom’s instruments, which included some passed down through his family, were worth well over $30,000 according to John Riss, director of Institutional Advancement (fundraising) at the seminary high school.
Among the dozens of instruments belonging to the seminary lost in the fire, were also personal items that “mean an awful lot to the young men,” Riss said, noting a violin worth $14,000 and a bassoon worth $8,000 that belonged to two freshmen boys.
While Riss said it was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, he said the value of instruments passed down through families and the more than 140 years of history in the buildings are irreplaceable.
Riss said they will soon contact some of the school’s benefactors. “We will be sending out a letter shortly telling people of the calamity that’s befallen us,” he said, explaining that they not only have to replace instruments, but also St. Joseph Hall which will likely cost more than what the insurance will cover.
“People are asking if they can send in a cello or a flute or whatever, so we might get some gifts in kind, but of course the flexibility of buying what we’re going to need when we assess what we lost, that’ll be real important,” he said.
Fr. Wheelock said it will be interesting to see how quickly they begin building again. “We’re in the midst of complete renovation of two of our dorms, and that’s what we’ve been trying to raise money for, and now we’re having to raise money for two buildings.”
Fr. Wheelock said a contractor will attempt to save a three-piece sandstone statue of St. Joseph – “the protector of the church” – Thursday morning.
This isn’t the first time a destructive fire has 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 seminarians.
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, the first of two blows to this small farming community that now must deal with another historic loss.
“Historically, these are buildings that have served us well,” Fr. Holly said. “They’ve had a number of incarnations over their 141-year existence.”
St. Joseph Hall served as a dormitory and housed most of the school’s classrooms while the chapel, as big as a regular church, served that purpose until the 1950s when it was relegated to storage, Fr. Holly said.
“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.”
(Tracy Rusch contributed to this story.)