On January 2, 1904, St. Catharine Academy senior May Curry of Springfield was awakened by a muffled explosion and discovered the school was on fire. Nearly overcome by the smoke, she woke the Academy prefect, Sister Borgia McCann, who directed students to the children’s infirmary. Sister Raymond Bird asked a novice to ring the summoning bell to call the novices to dress and assemble in the chapel. When it was apparent that the entire building was ablaze, sisters broke windows and tossed items to the ground in hopes of saving them. As flames advanced toward them, the sisters made sure that all students had vacated the school, then ran to escape the blaze. Many were still in their night clothes and reached for mantles from the chapel stalls to protect themselves from the cold.
As Sister Mary Edward Prendergast ran from the fire, she saw the profession book, in which recorded the names of all those who took vows, on a desk. She placed this important piece of history inside the desk to protect it, and as she was dragging it to the stairway, a man stopped to carry the desk down the stairs. The last to leave, Sister Bernard Fogarty was trapped by flame and smoke. She fled by breaking a window and climbing onto the roof, shuffling her way to another building, breaking another window and climbing through to escape.
By the grace of God, there were no fatalities in the fire. Immediate shelter was provided for 75 girls and 56 sisters by the Dominican friars of St. Rose, the Sisters of Loretto, Sisters of Charity, and Springfield citizens. Clothing was provided as well as many escaped wearing only their night clothes.
The news reached Louisville the next morning, prompting the friars of St. Louis Bertrand to organize a relief committee. This group provided food, clothing, and shelter. The Louisville and Nashville railway dedicated a special train, free of charge, to the relief committee.
Donations and support poured in from many religious communities. St. Francis DeSales in Charlestown, Massachusetts offered their convent as a novitiate. Holy Rosary Academy in Louisville made room for the sisters in their convent and created a classroom for St. Catharine students. A public meeting was held in Louisville to raise funds for the sisters; even a benefit concert was held in New York.
Only two buildings survived the fire – the chaplain’s four-room cottage and the laundry. The cottage became living quarters and the laundry served as kitchen and dining room as well as laundry. With help from the friars, the sisters built a framework house, covered with a tarpaulin, known as the paper house.
Ten postulants quickly advanced to accept the habit to prevent them from having to disrupt their study by leaving the motherhouse. These women professed as sisters on March 8, 1904. Holy Rosary Academy in Louisville hosted St. Catharine seniors’ graduation in the spring.
The loss of the Academy and the Motherhouse was profound. In addition to the buildings, art, and books, all records except the profession book were lost to the fire. It was heartbreaking for the sisters as they witnessed the burnt remains of their home and their work.
In the spring, however, jonquils again bloomed at Sienna Vale. These robust flowers of spring became and remain a symbol of hope, or a Sign of God, that the Dominicans should continue their ministry.
The discussion on where to build the new St. Catharine Academy and Motherhouse continued for months, with many options and opinions offered. But in the end, the Sisters felt that the rural site at St Catharine would be the best place to rebuild the school. As important, this sacred ground had become home, and the Sisters did not want to leave. On May 9, 1904, the community decided to build on their own land. Said to be the highest point of elevation in Washington County, Sienna Heights became the present home for Dominicans in Kentucky.
The Sisters were also looking ahead to the future. Within months of the beginning of construction of the new building, Mother Agnes purchased a harp and hired a professor to instruct one of the Sisters, so that she would be ready to teach new Academy students. She sent another Sister to Boston to complete her studies in vocal music. Both of these directives illustrate the Sisters’ dedication to the Academy, as well as the belief, held to this day, that art is a form of preaching. Today, Dominican Sisters of Peace preach by painting, singing, writing, weaving, and even through the creation of pottery and fabric arts.