The ‘Lost’ Churches of Libertyville

In the early 20th century, between the years of 1904 and 1927, Libertyville saw three of its churches destroyed by fire. In a relatively small, yet growing village, the loss of a church is a huge blow to the community.  The people proved to be tough and in most cases the buildings were insured and replacement structures were up running within the year.
What can’t be lost in the discussion of fires in the early history of Libertyville are those who fought them. Lacking the modern firefighting equipment of today, firefighters had to not only protect lives and property, they also had to do so without any real protective gear. In the early 1900s, the fire department was just getting its footing, as the fire department hadn’t existed in Libertyville until a huge fire almost wiped out the village in 1895. After that the department came into being and was a gradual work in progress, always growing and improving with emerging technology.
Libertyville after the devastating fire in 1895.
The first church Libertyville lost was the Sts. Peter &  Paul Catholic Church, which burned on Sunday, June 19, 1904. The fire was unique for a couple of reasons and pointed out some real issues that the village had in regards to public safety. The fire was first discovered by Bishop MacGavin who lived across the street from the church. MacGavin gave the alarm and he and Jasper Holt were the first ones to arrive at the fire. What initially appeared to be a small fire, proved to be much deceptive. Mr. Holt estimated that the fire could be easily put out, yet it spread very quickly and soon engulfed the building in flames. Even though the fire started towards the front of the church, which was furthest from the entrance, the flames were so intense that only a few things (some newer pews and other furniture) were able to be saved.
St. Joseph’s Church taken a few years after its construction in 1905.
By the time the fire engine arrived, saving the church was out of the question, so protecting nearby buildings became the priority. The biggest problem the fire department had was that the village didn’t have a water system. So in order to work, their engine had to use private wells for water. When one well went dry, the engine stopped until it could be connected to the next well. Despite this, the fire was contained to the church and no other property was destroyed. Since the damage was so great and spread so quickly, no one is sure how the fire started.
Thankfully, the Catholic Church had the foresight to have an insurance policy on the building, which was built around 1885. By 1905, St. Joseph’s had been built to replace the Church of Sts. Peter & Paul. The fire brought about the obvious need for a more efficient water system for the village of Libertyville, which was in place within a few years after the fire. This is not unlike the fire of 1895 showing the village the need for a fire department.
The St. Lawrence Church was originally the Union Church built in 1868. The Union Church provided a house of worship for many denominations of Christianity, which shared the building. The Episcopalians had only bought the building in 1912. Sadly, the St. Lawrence Episcopal church was destroyed by a fire on Friday, 7, 1917. The fire was first noticed by a choir member who immediately went to get help. Despite the fire department’s quick arrival, by the time the fire had been noticed, significant damage had already occurred. An overheated furnace was thought to be the cause of the problem, which set the flooring on fire. In what had to be a very dramatic as well as horrific scene, the walls of the structure fell in on themselves and the cross on top of the steeple fell over 100 feet to the ground. Despite this devastating loss, the church moved on quickly. The Church had a large insurance policy on the building, around $9000, and by the end of the year had another church already built.
The St. Lawrence Church, formerly the Union Church, taken in the 1910s.
This is by no means a reflection on the efforts or competency of the fire department. Due to the nature of the fire and the materials of the building, by the time the fire department got to the scene the fate of the church has already been sealed. Despite this, they fought the intense heat from the blaze and valiantly saved the surrounding buildings that were constantly threatening to go up themselves. The town itself was on watch as sparks from the fire were noticed as far as five blocks away.
A faulty furnace was to blame for a fire at the Presbyterian Church in February 1927. The fire started when the janitor was prepping the church for Sunday morning services and started up the heat. Soon flames were shooting out on the second floor. The building itself was wooden and very old, so it didn’t take long for the fire to do significant damage.
Photograph of the Presbyterian Church taken in the 1910s.
The fire department was quick to respond and was actually battling the fire in short order. However, due to the age of the building and a strong wind, for a time it appeared that the fire would defeat Libertyville’s dedicated crew. The neighboring Mundelein Fire Department was called in to assist and with the combined effort the building wasn’t a complete loss. While many items were saved, including four pianos, a large organ toward the front of the building was lost. The Libertyville and Mundelein Fire Departments’ efficiency and bravery was noted. Besides the fact that this was a House of God, nobody wanted to lose the building as it had been in the community for about 40 years.
The Presbyterian Church had an insurance policy on their building and a plot of land to possibly build a new structure. Due to the significant damage done by the fire, they decided to build a new structure that was constructed by August of 1928.While losing some of its churches may have been tragic for the people of Libertyville, there are some positives to these fires. First, and most importantly, nobody lost their life as a result of any of the fires. During these fires, and other fires that took place during this time, the Libertyville Fire Department was able to prove themselves as brave and effective, helping them earn the respect of the citizenry. Lastly, the congregations were able to build safer and newer churches for their followers.

 

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