ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In 1967, Father George Weinmann rushed into his burning parish church, St. Philip Neri, to save the Eucharist, while Sister Lilian Marie McLaughlin, a second grade teacher at the parish school, ran in to rescue a few students she was told were inside. Neither would make it out alive.
That day of their deaths 50 years ago — Feb. 20 — made an indelible mark on the memories of the students and parishioners of this urban parish in Rochester, New York, and a lasting example of sacrifice. Though they died half a century ago, the impressions of their students and parishioners still provide a glimpse into the ordinary nature of greatness that would make Venerable Fulton Sheen, the bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, call them “martyrs.”
Jimmy Thompson, a seventh-grade safety patroller, discovered the fire that day.
“When you have something as devastating in your life as Feb. 20 was, and when it was your religion, and your school, and your church that you truly loved, you never forget these things,” he told the Register.
The day was overcast, snowy and windy, and the students at the school played outside during lunchtime. Thompson watched the younger boys while they played. After a fourth grader came out of the wooden church and told Thompson that children were playing in there, Thompson opened the door to look inside. The apse of the church was covered in flames.
Thompson ran to the school and pulled the fire alarm. He remembers seeing Sister Lilian Marie, then 26 years old, dialing the fire department as he rushed to the rectory to tell the priests.
Father Weinmann heard him yelling that the church was on fire.
“Now, this man was 77 years old,” Thompson said. “He came running out of the rectory without his shoes on, in just his trousers and T-shirt, because they took their cassocks off in the house.”
Father Weinmann had been ordained a priest in 1918. He had served in three parishes in the diocese before becoming pastor of St. Philip Neri in 1959. As a pastor, he energetically built up the parish, founding a school in 1962, and then a convent for the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1965.
St. Philip Neri had the classic features of a lively urban parish, with bazaars, spaghetti dinners, mothers’ and fathers’ clubs and bingo. Many of the parishioner families lived within several blocks of the school.
Students remembered him as “an old-school priest.” Judith Finn, who grew up in the parish, told the Register, “He had a reputation for being frugal; he watched every penny that came into the church and spent very little on himself.”
Gary Cirulli, another parishioner, humorously recalled how extensive his pastor’s thrift could be. He told the Register that, after weddings and funerals, families would tip the altar boys. But, he said, “They’d give the tips to Father Weinmann, and he’d squirrel that money away. We didn’t even know that altar boys got tipped until we were older.”
Although he could be quiet, many remember their priest as a humorous man who enjoyed teasing his parishioners. Thompson remembers that he would tell the boys selling soda pop at bingo games not to drink it all. Regina Wahl, a student in third grade the year of the fire, told the Register that at a family wedding her sister’s slip fell off on the apse. Father Weinmann held it up and asked, “Who lost their underwear?”
St. Philip Neri had been built completely out of wood as a mission church in 1929. The fire would have consumed the church without any help, but according to contemporary news reports, ventilator fans in the church fans were later found to have gone on automatically, fanning the flames. The furnishings of the church had also been polished with lemon oil, in an attempt to cover the smoke damage from a small fire the previous week.
School Sister of Notre Dame Robert Marie, then teaching at St. Philip Neri, remembers that the smoke obscured everything in the schoolyard.
“It was so black, you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face,” she told the Register.
While the sisters were eating lunch, they heard there was a fire and rushed out, many without coats, to check on the students. Sister Lilian had called the fire department from the school and then had been told there were some children playing inside the church. She entered the burning building by the side door.
Sister Lilian celebrated her 26th birthday the previous Friday, coming back to her classroom after lunch to find it decorated for the occasion. Originally from Boston, she entered the novitiate of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1962, taking the name of Lilian Marie, and would have professed final vows the summer of 1967.
Students remember her as gentle and patient, but also full of joy and humor. Wahl, who described herself as “painfully shy” at that age, remembers how patient sister was in explaining little things, like how to open the desks. When Wahl’s mother suffered from breast cancer, she asked sister why her mother felt ill.
“She told me that her suffering was for those of others. She was so kind to be able to explain that to a child,” Wahl said.
Thompson remembers that Sister Lilian would use an intercom buzzer to summon teachers to the main office and then hide in a supply closet.
“She was always playing pranks,” he said.
Finn added, “She was very beautiful, very graceful. There was something almost angelic about her.”
There were no students in the church that day, but, inside, Sister Lilian found Father Weinmann and tried to help him escape the building. The two of them tried leaving through the main entrance, at the back of the church.
In the thick black smoke, the old priest and young nun appear to have mistaken the door of a confessional for the main entrance. The firefighters found them near there. Sister Lilian Marie died of smoke inhalation, while Father Weinmann, who had retrieved the Eucharist from the tabernacle, died a few days later.
“To be honest, no one was ever the same,” said Thompson of the tragedy. “Two beautiful people were taken that day.”
Initial news accounts blamed the blaze on an electrical fire. Students told the Register that the school later discovered a fourth grade student had set the fire deliberately, the third in three weeks, though a decision was made to not press charges.
After his death, among Father Weinmann’s possessions was found an envelope with a pencil-written note saying, “For a new church.” Inside: $200,000 in government bonds. 1968 would have been Father’s 50th anniversary of ordination, and he had planned to celebrate by partially funding a new church.
Through their pastor’s generosity and insurance money, St. Philip Neri had a new building by 1969, but Catholic life by then had radically changed. Reforms triggered by the Second Vatican Council had come into effect, and parishioners heard a new Mass said in a new brick church. A souring local economy, flight to the suburbs and declining membership contributed to the eventual closure of the parish in 2003.
In public remarks about Sister Lilian, Bishop Sheen said, “Martyrs belong to our own times and in most unexpected moments. Sister Lilian Marie gave her life in helping Father Weinmann save the Blessed Sacrament from fire. Greater love than this no woman hath.”
In the eulogy he gave for Father Weinmann, he called him a “martyred priest in behalf of his Blessed Lord.”
Father Dennis Bonsignore, a diocesan priest who was 17 at the time of the fire, told the Register that their sacrifice “was an act of heroic piety toward the Real Presence.”
“It awes us that they would walk in to save a person, in the sacramental sense, and that's why he’s calling them martyrs. And we can say that a martyr is a saint,” he said. “They’re not canonized, but they are saints. They died for God heroically, for his honor and glory in the sacrament.”
Thompson, who raised the alarm about the fire, agreed.
“Every year we prayed for them and had Masses said for them,” he said. “In the new church, the altar was dedicated to Father and Sister. They were local saints that we all knew and loved.”
Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.