A cathedral that rose from the ashes


WHEN POPE John Paul II visits Baltimore Oct. 23, a highlight of his itinerary will be a tour of the beautiful Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street. The event will be televised worldwide.

Yet the pope's visit to the cathedral wouldn't be possible if on Feb. 7, 1904 the great Baltimore fire hadn't occurred -- or if Thomas O'Neil hadn't dared the firefighters to blow up his store, or if the wind hadn't shifted that afternoon or . . .

But we getting are ahead of our story.

On Sunday morning, Feb. 7, 1904, what would be known forever as the great Baltimore fire began in the dry goods firm of John E. Hurst & Co., located on the south side of Redwood Street between Hopkins Place and Liberty Street.

The first alarm was turned in at 10:20 a.m. But the blaze, fanned by a vigorous southeast wind, was out of control within minutes.

By afternoon, most of the buildings between Fayette and Redwood streets west of Charles Street were a charred and smoking ruin. Still, the flames swept on. The city was in panic.

Meeting in the offices of Mayor Robert McLane, city engineers desperate to stop the flames resorted to a desperate measure. They decided to dynamite the buildings in the path of the blaze so there would be nothing left to burn -- the demolished lots would create an artificial firebreak that would stop the conflagration in its tracks.

By 5 p.m., blasting had begun on South Charles Street near Lombard Street.

First, down came the building of J. W. Putts department store on the southwest corner of Charles and Fayette streets.

The next large building slated for demolition was on the northwest corner of Charles and Lexington -- O'Neil's department store.

The firefighters rushed into O'Neil's to plant their charges -- and there, standing tall, his hair and mustache red as the flames that now threatened his store, was Thomas J. O'Neil himself, Irish immigrant-made-good, founder and president of the merchandise emporium that bore his name, civic and church leader.

Gentlemen, he said, pulling himself up to his full height, you'll have to blow me up, too!

Fire officials didn't know that O'Neill had just rushed back from the Carmelite Convent on Biddle Street, where he had gone to beg the nuns to pray for the safety of his store.

But it is a matter of historical record that on his return -- and after the confrontation with the would-be dynamiters -- the wind suddenly shifted. Miraculously, the fire turned south and east, and the store was saved.

The store, part of the era of Hutzler's, Hochschild's and Hecht's, flourished for another 50 years and was renowned for its fine gloves, hosiery, lace and linens from Spain, Ireland, Switzerland and France.

As proprietor, O'Neill stressed personal relationships between the customer and the salesperson. Thus, when a young lady was about to come out as a debutant, she would visit O'Neil's and ask for, say, "Miss Mary." There was also a Miss Celia, a Miss Ida, a Miss Louise -- all of whom became the customers' personal sales consultant.

O'Neil's closed in 1954, in part because of the coming of Charles Center, partly because the company could not negotiate the four leases it took to keep going. O'Neil himself died in 1919; he was being taken for a ride in Druid Hill Park when he suddenly fell ill. He died shortly afterward.

Besides bequeathing the business to his employees, there were other legacies: a fund for a new cathedral, which he left to his personal friend, the late James Cardinal Gibbons, money for a new hospital and $218,422 to Loyola College.

These funds became available on the death of his widow, Roberta LeBrou O'Neil, in 1936.

The next year, Archbishop Michael J. Curley, on this 58th birthday, disclosed that the original bequest to the cardinal had grown to $14 million. The sum was divided into $9 million for the new cathedral and adjacent buildings, and $5 million for a postgraduate hospital.

Archbishop Francis P. Keough broke ground for the new cathedral Oct. 10, 1954, only 10 weeks after O'Neil's management announced the store would close.

In generations to come, people will tell the story of Pope John's 1994 visit to Baltimore and to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. In the telling and retelling we hope they start the story at the beginning -- on the night of Feb. 7, 1904, at Charles and Fayette streets.

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