The horrific images of fire consuming Notre Dame cathedral in Paris resonated among some San Antonio residents who remembered when a blaze in 2008 damaged their own religious community at Our Lady of the Lake University.
It was May 6, and the sun was setting. Somewhere deep in the University’s main building, there was a spark … an electrical short … and then flames.
The fire moved quickly through the top floor of the gothic-style building and nearly surrounded the statue of Mary that looked down onto the campus.
Sister Ann Petrus was a math teacher at the time. As her day ended, her phone rang. A friend told her the main building was on fire. She remembered watching San Antonio firefighters surround the building and race to quench the flames.
When she saw the fire at Notre Dame, her memories of that night were re-ignited.
“That statue of Mary that was on top, that is on top of the main building, everybody was saying at that time, ‘look, our lady still stands,’ she recalled. "You know, ‘Notre Dame’ means ‘our lady,’ so we’ve got a name connection with the church in Paris.”
San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood also remembered that night. He said it was a historic challenge for his department.
“It was the largest fire in a Gothic facility west of the Mississippi like, ever, you know, because there are not a lot of structures like that around, and this was ... a big fire for us, and we walked away -- thank God -- without any injuries.”
The blaze damaged the top floor, and the water used to extinguish the flames damaged the floors below. There were no injuries or deaths.
The Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence founded the university in 1895 to help educate and offer religious services to the Westside.
And that community -- and the city -- responded quickly with assistance, including bottles of water, offers to house anyone affected by the fire and financial support for reconstruction.
A $20 million effort restored the building within three years. Sister Petrus remembered thinking that it never looked better. It symbolized a stronger union between the university and the city it called home.
“Such good things can come out of such terrible things, and the support and connection with the San Antonio community is something we will never forget.”
Last year marked the fire’s ten-year anniversary.