On Wednesday, May 1, 1996, in Arlington Heights, Illinois, fifteen members of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church choir were to meet at 7 pm in the choir loft of the church for their weekly rehearsal.
At 7 pm, a gas leak in the basement of the church was ignited by the furnace. The resulting explosion demolished the building down to its foundation. Windows in the grade school across the street were blown out, as were some of the windows in the rectory next to the school. Nearby homes sustained minor damage.
No one was injured. The choir member’s punctuality for this weekly meeting had never been an issue – until this particular Wednesday. All fifteen members were late by six or seven minutes. Inexplicable reasons to the fifteen members, but not to Father Frederick Monahan.
And now …
THE BELLS OF SAINT PETER
Myra Grace Beckway
It was 5:30 pm as Myra Beckway, a member of the choir, hurried into the Chicago train station with hopes of catching the 5:33 train to Arlington Heights. She arrived at the departure concourse slightly out of breath – the gate to Train No. 647- 5:33 was closed. She could still see the red lights on the last coach as it left the train shed.
She pulled the train schedule from her purse and examined other departure possibilities. No. 649- 5:47 was a local and would not get her into Arlington Heights until 6:41 – she would be late for rehearsal. It would have to be the No. 651- 6:01. It was an express and would get her into Arlington at 6:34. The church was three and one-half blocks from the train depot. She would be on time.
With twenty-five minutes remaining before departure, Myra headed to the station fast food vendor. She disliked fast food but had no choice this afternoon. She ordered a fish sandwich which appeared to be the healthiest item on the overhead menu along with a small chocolate shake, the ingredients of which would remain a mystery for all time. In the future, she would schedule her time with more care to avoid a repeat of this dining experience. She carried her food to the stand-up counter and began eating the sandwich while she reexamined the train schedule to make sure she had read it correctly.
She looked at her watch; a quick phone call to her mother was essential since she would not be home for dinner. The reason for missing dinner was choir practice so, her mother would have to bite her tongue. Myra was thirty-two and seriously thinking of getting her own apartment. Marriage and children seemed to be a fading dream which was the big rub with her mother; Myra was tired of hearing about it.
As she moved from the bank of telephones into the waiting area she heard a voice coming up from behind. “Excuse me,” Myra stopped and looked around. It was a well-dressed, reasonably good-looking man she did not recognize.
“Are you speaking to me?” She asked politely, with guarded tone.
“You’re Murnia Beckway aren’t you?” The man smiled at her.
“No, it’s Myra. Have we met before?” She was interested.
“I’m sorry, Myra, of course. I’m Brad Benson. You and my dad sing in the choir at Saint Peter’s.”
He still did not seem familiar to her. “Yes, we do. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“No, we haven’t. I remember seeing you with my Dad in the choir during my visits. I live in Chicago now and don’t get out to Arlington that often. In fact, I’m going out this evening for a few days. What train are you taking?”
“The 6:01,” she felt more comfortable.
“Mind if I ride along with you? It will make the trip seem shorter.
“Yes, of course. We’ll get in at 6:34 and I’ll have enough time to get to the church for rehearsal. Are you planning on meeting your father there?”
“No, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t. I told Mom and Dad I would be out for a visit. I didn’t specify the exact arrival time,” Brad glanced at the overhead station clock, “Hey, it’s getting close to departure. We better hop it.”
They boarded the train and seated themselves together. The train jerked slightly, then slowly moved out of the station. Their conversation was mostly small talk about things they were familiar with in Arlington – including the parochial school across the street from the church.
“Isn’t that funny,” Myra mused, “I don’t remember seeing you at school?”
“Well, that’s understandable, I was four years ahead of you. But, I remember you. You were a cute kid,” his smile was a little friendlier than before.
“Pigtails and freckles,” Myra laughed. She was pleased with the compliment. “The pigtails are gone but, I’m afraid the freckles are still with me.”
“I don’t see any,” he looked carefully at her face.
“Make-up,” she blushed a little.
“Too bad. I’m sure they would be very becoming – if you let them out once in a while.” Now he was blushing.
“Well, maybe someday. A private showing for you and your folks.” Now they were both blushing. The conversation moved into safer territory as they relaxed in each other’s company. Myra clipped her monthly pass to the seat back in front of her. Brad clipped his one-way ticket next to her pass.
The conductor came through the car and stopped to punch Brad’s ticket. He paused a moment, bent over and picked something up from the floor of the car. “You must have dropped this,” he handed Brad a small green stone. Brad took it and thanked him. The conductor moved into the next coach.
Brad looked at the stone. “It looks like an emerald.” He gave it to Myra.
“Could be. It’s very nice. Look how well it has been cut. Some poor soul will be missing this. May I keep it?” she looked at Brad.
“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Myra placed the stone in her purse and forgot about it as they continued their conversation.
Twenty minutes into their journey the train slowed and stopped. “That’s odd,” Myra looked out of the coach window, “We shouldn’t be stopping until we reach Arlington.” Fifteen minutes later the train resumed its journey. “Now I am going to be late for rehearsal. Oh, well, first time for everything I suppose.”
Brad smiled. “Perhaps it’s kismet.” Myra looked at him quizzically. “You know – destiny – fate.” She kept looking at him. “The will of Allah,” was his final offer.
“Allah?” She was amused.
“Yeah, kismet comes from the Arabic word qisma. It means fate. Kismet and Allah are both Arabic words.” He thought that would be the end of it. It wasn’t. “I’m a writer. I study different words, different languages.”
“Oh, I see,” she paused with a smile. “That’s very interesting.”
The conductor entered the car and explained the delay was due to an emergency in a forward coach. A passenger was carried off the train and taken away in an ambulance.
The train reached Arlington Heights at 6:54. Myra and Brad stepped onto the depot platform and hurried toward the Dunton Street track crossing.
They were a block and a half from their destination when they heard an explosion coming from the direction of the church. The shock wave nearly knocked them over. Brad grabbed Myra to keep her from falling. “Oh, my God, the church,” Myra murmured.
“My dad! Come on, let’s go,” He took her hand as they hurried to the corner of the school auditorium where the devastation of what had happened came into full view. “Jesus,” Brad whispered. He still had Myra’s hand in his. “Come on.” They quickened their step along the walkway next to the auditorium.
Myra saw someone she knew going into the auditorium foyer. “This way, Brad. It’s Rose Marie and Ruth.” They ran toward the foyer doorway.
Martha Ann Winkelman
Martha Winkelman, fifty-one, was the organist for the Saint Peter’s choir group. She lived on N. Evergreen Ave. across the street from the park. She and her neighbor Glenn Clausing, also a member of the choir, walked the four blocks to choir practice each week.
That afternoon, she was giving a piano lesson to one of her favorite and very talented students, Russell Flagg. Russ had been one of her students since he was old enough to reach the piano keyboard. He was eighteen years old now and a natural at the keyboard. He was such a natural, Martha often thought he might be an old soul who had come back and was picking up where he had left off in a former life. Russ was technically correct with everything he played. But, it was his method of expression which had Martha in awe. And he was always asking for more difficult pieces. She knew the day was fast approaching when he would require instruction from someone far more learned than she.
Russ mastered Beethoven’s Hammerklavier in a short time. Then she gave him Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 which slowed him down for a brief period. When she gave him Ravel’s Gaspard De La Nuit, she figured he would have reached the ceiling of his ability. The finger breaking shimmering in the first movement alone would have been daunting enough for an accomplished pianist. Not for Russ – he had the strength and stamina to move effortlessly through this movement. It was the second movement, Le Gibet, which was giving him trouble. Martha suggested he skip to the third movement, Scarbo, assuring him if Scarbo presented no problems they would return to the second movement for more concentrated interpretation.
She had begun recording Russ’ piano playing in order to analyze his technique more closely. The recorder failed to work that afternoon. After a few minutes, they decided it was hopeless. It was well past the allotted time for his lesson so, they decided to call it a day. Martha walked Russ to the foyer of her home. As he slipped on his jacket, something fell from one of the sleeves and bounced on the wooden floor. He picked it up and showed it to Martha.
“It looks like an emerald,” Martha held it up to the light. “Is it yours?” Russ shook his head. She opened the front door. “See you next week.” As she closed the door, she took a closer look at the small stone. The way it sparkled in the hallway light convinced her it was of value – whether it was an emerald or not remained to be seen. She slipped it into her pocket.
The mantel clock read 6:43; time to leave for choir practice. Her neighbor, Glenn Clausing, should have been here. It was not like him to be late. She decided to leave for choir practice without him. No sooner had she closed the front door and was about to descend the porch stairs when she heard the telephone ring inside the house. She hurried back. It was Glenn. He had trouble with one of the Park District vehicles and was going to be delayed. He told her to go ahead; he would meet her at church. She hung up the telephone and glanced at the mantel clock as she left the house. It was already 6:52; she was going to be late.
Martha was a block away from arriving at the church when she heard an explosion and saw the rolling red clouds of smoke ascend over the treetops. The shockwave washed over her like a strong wind. She had to steady herself as she thought of the other choir members who were already at the church, and rushed forward. As she passed the side of the rectory and came to the corner, the horror of the blast came into full view. The church building was gone. There was nothing but rubble, fire, and smoke. Neighbors were beginning to fill the street. She heard distant sirens as she crossed the lawn of the rectory into the front yard of the school. The intense heat from the blaze prompted her to look for shelter. She noticed folks walking and running toward the auditorium foyer. She decided that was the best place to be.
Glenn Kent Clausing
Glenn Clausing, forty-eight, worked for the Arlington Heights Park District. Early in the day, he picked up a stone in his shoe while at work. He took his shoe off and turned it over. A green stone fell out onto the ground. The sparkle caught his eye, he picked it up, looked at it, and placed it in his pocket.
Later that afternoon his truck stalled in the Scarsdale subdivision. He realized he was going to be late for choir practice so, he called Martha, advising her to go ahead without him. Once he discovered the connection to the battery in his truck was loose, he tightened it and was able to start his vehicle. He decided to drive the Park District truck to the church so as not to be too late. He would return the truck to the office parking lot after choir practice.
It was 6:51 when he drove out of Scarsdale and headed toward Saint Peter’s Church. He was about to turn off the Northwest Highway when his truck was rocked by the shock wave from an explosion. He made the turn and drove another block, parked his truck and ran in the direction of the church, less than a block away. The sound of sirens grew louder as he approached the corner. The devastation was beyond belief – no one could have survived. He noticed folks were moving toward the auditorium foyer – obviously, to escape the intense heat from the blaze. He followed them.
Ulla Hildegard Schulig
Ulla Schulig lived on the corner of N. Chestnut Ave. and E. Fremont St. She had lived there all her life, as did her parents and grandparents before her. Uwe, her Grandfather, left the house to her parents, and to her for as long as they lived. After that, it was to go to her father’s sister, Emma Kehe and her decedents.
It was a big old two-story rambling affair. She closed off the upstairs bedrooms and used a small room on the first floor for herself – the one Gramps had used until he passed away. The other bedroom on the first floor was her weaving studio. Nothing had changed much in the fifty-two years she had lived there, including the original kitchen fixtures – installed when the house was built. The 1933 General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator was still in perfect working order after all these years. Gisela, her mother, told her they had purchased it from the electric company in 1934 and paid it off in monthly payments of ten dollars. The pantry was almost empty since she was the only one in the house. On holidays, it would be bursting with food brought by visiting relatives. The upstairs bedrooms would be opened up for those staying the weekend. The house rang with laughter and the smell of good food wafted throughout the house. The piano room was opened and the keys of the piano dusted for the dissonant impromptu singing which would take place. No one seemed to be able to carry a tune in her family but they did have a good time trying.
The Model T Ford which Gramps drove to work at the Klehm Nursery was still in the garage and would remain there during her lifetime. The next generation would probably sell it. Interestingly enough it still ran. The nephews always had a great time starting it up and driving around town during holiday gatherings.
But on this day, Ulla was alone, pouring over the box of weaving thread which had arrived via UPS that morning from the Yarn Barn in Kansas. She planned on making linen/cotton kitchen towels as Christmas gifts. Her mother had taught her how to use the Gilmore four harness loom when she was still a young girl. She did not particularly like it, but could not resist her mother’s eagerness for her to learn. Now, she was glad she knew how to operate it. As she emptied the many cones of different colored threads from the box, placing them in order on the work table, she noticed a small green stone in the bottom of the box. It sparkled as she lifted it out. She looked at it and wondered how it got there, and if it was valuable. She slipped it into her purse and would ask friends about it at choir practice that evening.
She lived ten or twelve minutes walking distance from the church. It was a simple trip she had made many times. She had gone to Saint Peter’s Parochial School across the street from the church – kindergarten through the eighth grade – she was certain she could navigate blindfolded to the church and back again.
It was 6 pm. The Black Forest Cuckoo Clock her grandfather had brought with him from Germany sounded the hour after which an internal music box played a tune. The clock had hung in the dining room over her mother’s canary cage for as long as she could remember. Beethoven, her mother’s canary had lived many years after her mother passed away. The cage stood empty now, Ulla planned on obtaining another canary. She missed the beautiful warbling; it reminded her of her childhood and her mother.
With a half hour to spare, she decided to begin winding the new thread onto the warping board she had prepared. When the clock cuckooed the half hour, she would stop winding and get ready for choir practice.
The warp for the towels was nine yards long and would require 400 winds through the warping board. She was surprised when she finished the count, had separated the threads into groups of 12, tied them off, and made ties along the length of the warp to keep it from tangling when she moved it from the warping board to the loom. She would dress the loom in the morning. It usually took much longer than a half hour for a project that large, she wondered why she had not heard the clock cuckoo the half hour.
Stepping into the dining room, she looked at the clock; it had stopped. That had never happened before. She raced into the kitchen; the wall clock over the sink read 6:48. ‘Ach du lieber Gott! Ich werde mich verspäten.’ She was going to be late. She changed her dress, did a quick look in the mirror, grabbed her purse and left the house.
It was 6:53 when she shut the door to the back porch and began walking toward the church. She had not gone more than a block when she heard a horrific explosion coming from the direction of the church. The shock wave almost knocked her over. She saw the red clouds of boiling smoke rising from where the church was located. Her first thoughts were of the other choir members who were already there.
She hurried to the next corner which brought the rear of the churchyard into view. The flames from where the church had once stood were so high and bright they illuminated the neighborhood. People were spilling out of their homes and gathering in the street. Sirens in the distance were coming closer. Ulla made her way to the corner where the rectory stood and crossed the rectory lawn to the schoolyard. Most of the window glass on the front of the school was gone. Only a few remaining panes reflected the horror from across the street. The steeple had collapsed and fallen forward onto the street between the church and the school, making it impassable. As sirens came closer, she saw Janny, a nickname for the janitor who looked after the school and the church. He walked rapidly toward the foyer which connected the old school building to the new auditorium. She followed him to get away from the intense heat coming from the blaze.
Dale Frederick Benson
Dale Benson, fifty-nine, and his wife Jennifer lived at 442 S. Evergreen Ave. As an architect, Dale spent a good deal of his time in his home studio working on various building projects. One of his pet projects was the architectural design of a new home he was preparing for his son, Brad, who was still single, thirty-six, and living in an apartment on the North Side of Chicago, and struggling with his writing career. Dale was planning on presenting the design to Brad, who was coming for a long overdue visit. He had high hopes this gift might encourage Brad to move back to Arlington, now that the Village had grown into a thriving community. Jennifer did not think it was going to work but did not discourage Dale. However, if Dale offered to pay for the construction – it may very well work.
Jennifer hollered down the basement stairway, “Dale, we’re going to be late for choir practice,” she always accompanied Dale even though she was not a member. She liked everyone in the group and enjoyed talking with them after practice was finished.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m almost done,” but he still had a number of details he wanted to complete. He forgot about the time.
It was 6:30. Jennifer decided to wait until 6:45 before she made a final call. Brad, their son, was due to arrive for a visit. She wanted to check his room to make sure everything was in order.
Before she ascended the built-in semicircular stairway to the second floor, she went to the mailbox in the hallway. As she pulled the mail out, something fell to the floor and bounced. She thought it might be a stone. When she picked it up she saw it was green and glittered in the hallway light. She thought it pretty and wondered how it got into the mailbox. She placed it in her pocket, laid the mail on the hall table, and went upstairs to check Brad’s room.
She and Dale had meticulously designed this house in every detail and had it built in 1960. It was built on two lots at the corner of S. Evergreen Ave. and E. Park St. The outer shell of the home was finished in flagstone which they had a devil of a time obtaining back then. They chose this particular spot in town because of its elevation – there would never be a problem with a flooded basement. They had considered Scarsdale but decided it was not for them. And, there was a policeman who lived in the home next to them – an added bonus.
Jennifer glanced at her watch and did a double take – it still read 6:30 – her watch had stopped. She ran downstairs to the kitchen and checked the clock over the back door, then ran to the door leading to the basement. “Dale, it’s 10 minutes to 7 – we’re going to be late – please hurry.”
Dale dropped his pencil and raced up the stairs. “Why didn’t you call me earlier? He grabbed his car keys and headed into the attached garage.
“My watch stopped,” she pressed the button which lifted the garage door and got in the passenger side of their car. As soon as she closed her door, Dale backed out and down the driveway onto the street. “The door,” Jennifer prompted. Dale picked up the remote from the dashboard and pressed the button; the garage door descended.
This was a new system they had installed after they discovered why their garage door kept opening and closing at all hours of the day and night. Kids in the neighborhood had discovered their garage door opener had a universal code which opened other garage doors. They would ride up and down the street on their bicycles having great fun opening their neighbors’ garage doors. Jennifer happened to be in the dining room one afternoon when the door opened and she saw the kids riding by, laughing at the success of their prank. She laughed when it dawned on her what had been going on. After she told Dale, he immediately had another system installed – much to the chagrin of the kids, Jennifer was sure.
They drove north on Evergreen toward Saint Peter’s Church. Three blocks from the church, they heard an explosion and saw the red ball of flames shoot up into the sky.
“Oh, my God, that’s the church,” Jennifer touched Dale’s arm.
“Yeah, you’re right. We better park around the corner and walk in. I’m sure the Fire Department and ambulances will be on their way,” Dale parked his car; they hurried toward the devastation they were about to see.
“If we hadn’t been late …” Dale took her arm and held it close as they drew closer to the corner.
Dale whispered, “I wonder if the others were there?” Jennifer began to weep. “Come on girl; none of that. They may need our help,” They hesitated only a second when they came to the corner, saw what had happened, then ran to the school front yard. Someone call their names. They looked toward the auditorium foyer, Ulla Schulig waved at them as she entered the building. “Thank God, Ulla is ok,” Dale waved to Ulla. He and Jennifer ran toward the foyer.
Duane Clyde Engelking
It was 6 pm when Duane Engelking, fifty-six, sat down in his favorite easy chair to watch the news. His wife, Peggy, was away visiting her sister. He planned to pick up Lynn Cutler and Geraldine Milner that evening. They were members of Saint Peter’s Choir and had gone to practice together for many years. Duane planned to leave when the news ended at 6:30. He fell asleep. At 6:43 Mr. Smith, his Scottish terrier, jumped into his lap and woke him. Duane rubbed his eyes, looked at his watch and realized he was going to be late. He placed Mr. Smith on the floor and prepared to leave.
When he got into his SUV, he noticed something sparkling on the passenger seat. He picked it up, looked at it, and put it in his shirt pocket. He backed out of his driveway at 16 Mayfair Road in Scarsdale and drove toward Geraldine Milner’s home. She was waiting at the curb and opened the back door of his SUV before he came to a complete stop, “Duane, I can’t believe you’re late. We’ve never been late for rehearsal before. What happened?” she pulled the door shut.
“I fell asleep – sorry.”
“She’s with her sister and won’t be back until tomorrow.”
Geraldine June Milner
Geraldine Milner, single, forty-one, lived on the corner of E. Grove St. and S. Burton Place with her widowed, elderly father. Duane picked her up each Wednesday for choir practice. She was a school teacher at the South Middle School on S. Highland Ave. across the street from Cronin Park. She had taught Seventh Grade for a number of years and had become a well-respected educator. On this particular Wednesday afternoon, one of her students, Sandra Lempke, came up to her at the close of the final class of the day.
“I found this on the floor, Ms. Milner. Thought you might like to have it,” Sandra placed a green stone in Geraldine’s hand.
“Sandra, how beautiful. It looks like an emerald. Perhaps one of the other students lost it.”
“I asked around, no one recognized it.”
“Well, I’ll keep it and let the office know I have it, in case anyone should ask for it,” she placed the stone on her desk and thanked Sandra. As she prepared to leave for the day, she paused, picked up the stone and placed it in her purse – for safe keeping.
With Geraldine secure in the back seat of his SUV, Duane continued driving toward the home of Lynn Cutler, a few blocks away. As he pulled into Lynn’s driveway, he saw Lynn closing the front door of his home. He walked rapidly toward Duane’s SUV. “What happened to you?” Lynn inquired as he opened the door and got into the front seat.
“I fell asleep.”
“She’s visiting her sister,” Geraldine interrupted in a somewhat sarcastic tone. “His dog woke him up – thank goodness.”
“His name is Mr. Smith if you don’t mind,” Duane informed Geraldine with as much wit as he could muster.
“Okay, Mr. Smith, but we’re still going to be late. How embarrassing is that going to be?”
“They’ll get over it,” Lynn nudged Duane.
Lynn Patrick Cutler
Lynn Cutler, single, thirty-two, lived at the corner of E. George St. and S. Bristol Ln. north of the Scarsdale subdivision. It was 6:09. Lynn calculated he had at least half an hour to work on his food column for the Chicago Tribune before Duane picked him up for choir practice. He had worked for the Tribune for more than five years and had acquired a large following because of the innovative recipes he added to his column each week. Most of the recipes came from an old cookbook his mother had left him when she passed away. Of course, he never bothered to tell anyone about that.
He had proofread halfway through his column when he came upon a portion relating to the history of cooking which did not seem correct. After doing research on the Internet, he knew what he had written was incorrect. The column was due to editorial on Saturday. Though he could make the corrections the next day, he decided to make the changes now.
When he glanced at the desk clock, it read 6:48 – Duane was late. He picked up the phone and dialed Duane’s number. It rang and rang and then went into message mode. Lynn hung up the phone and got ready to leave. He would drive to the church himself. It wasn’t like Duane to be late. As he grabbed the keys from the hook next to the garage door he noticed something sparkling on the counter below. He picked up the little green stone and marveled at the beauty of it. He couldn’t imagine where it had come from. He stuck it in his pocket. As he placed his hand on the doorknob of the garage door, he heard a car pull into his driveway. It was Duane. He hurried out the front door and got into Duane’s SUV.
It was 6:55 when Duane backed out of Lynn’s driveway and headed toward their destination across town.
At 6:59 they were on Northwest Highway, stopped at a traffic light. The light changed to green. As Duane pulled away they heard a terrific explosion coming from the direction in which they were traveling. “What the hell was that?” Lynn shouted.
Geraldine spotted the rolling red and orange smoke billowing above the tall buildings. “Look! It’s coming from Saint Peter’s.”
“Oh, my God,” Duane groaned. He was able to get through the next traffic light before it turned red, turned right at the next corner and parked his car. “We better not get any closer. Who knows what’s going on over there,” the three of them got out of the SUV and walked rapidly toward the church.
They found Gene Freeman standing at the corner by the school auditorium. He was dazed at the sight they were about to see. Duane took Gene’s arm, “Come on, Gene,” the four of them walked quickly to the school front lawn.
“This way,” Geraldine urged. She turned right and headed for the auditorium foyer.
Gene Arthur Freeman
Gene Freeman, thirty-two, was the choir director. He worked as manager of the Safeway food store in Mount Prospect, the town next to Arlington Heights. He left the store on time but was delayed by traffic. Glenda, his wife, called him at the store earlier and asked him to bring fresh lettuce. When he arrived at his home on N. Hickory Ave., he handed the package of lettuce to Glenda and headed for the shower. As she pulled the lettuce leaves apart, a stone fell onto the kitchen counter. At first, she thought it was a garden stone picked up by accident. Then she realized this lettuce was grown hydroponically – there was no soil. She picked up the stone and was surprised how it sparkled in the kitchen light. She placed it next to Gene’s table setting and finished preparing dinner.
They discussed the stone during dinner and could not decide if it was glass or a real emerald. Gene slipped it in his shirt pocket. He would take it to rehearsal; perhaps someone there would know. He left for rehearsal at the usual time and was once again slowed down by heavy traffic on the Northwest Highway. As he turned off of the highway and was looking for a place to park, he heard a huge explosion and felt the shock wave rock his car. He parked his car and saw the red glow coming over the tops of buildings. He walked quickly to the corner of the school auditorium. What he saw when he came to the corner shocked him. He stood there paralyzed. The church was gone and what was left was in flames. All he could think of were the other choir members who were in the church at the time of the explosion. He heard advancing sirens. Duane came up behind him, grabbed his arm. “Come on Gene.”
Leroy Charles Hograve
Leroy Hograve, forty-six, a choir member, and his wife Patricia lived on S. Mitchell Ave. at the corner of W. Rockwell St. –- about a twenty-minute drive to Saint Peter’s Church. Leroy was a plumber by trade. He had been delayed at South Middle School, several blocks from his home. Some children had flushed lighted cherry bombs down the toilets. When they exploded, water gushed out of all the toilet bowls and effectively flooded the boys and girls washrooms. He only smiled when he heard what had happened. He had done the same thing when he was in High School – and never got caught. He found no damage – inspecting the entire system, just to make sure. What he did find was a small sparkling green stone in one of the stalls. He placed it in his pocket with intentions of turning it into the office as a lost and found item. He forgot and only realized it when he was changing his clothes before showering. He placed the stone in the pocket of the trousers he would be wearing to choir rehearsal.
Patricia, his wife had a hot turkey sandwich and a cup of coffee waiting for him when he came down from the bedroom. “You’re going to be a little late, dear,” Patricia observed with an impish smile.
“Yeah, I know. Not by much, thank goodness,” he finished his meal, grabbed his wife in an embrace, “Thank you. That was de-lick-eous,” he headed for his truck.
He was two blocks away from the church on Northwest Highway when he heard an explosion and felt the shock wave rock his truck. The red and orange cloud of smoke rising above the buildings to his right told him something had gone horribly wrong at the church. He thought of the other members of the choir as he turned right on a side street and found a place to park. He ran to the corner where the school auditorium stood. The church was gone. He glanced to the right and thought he saw Dale Benson running toward the auditorium foyer – he followed.
Vivian Rose Meyer
Vivian Meyer, thirty-six, lived on E. Rockwell St. at the edge of the Scarsdale subdivision. She was waiting quietly for her friend Ruth Shadowitz to pick her up for choir rehearsal.
She and Ruth had been members of the choir group for seven years. It was already past 6:45 when the phone rang. It was Rose Marie, “What? No, I thought Ruth was to pick us up. No, wait – I’ll drive. You call Ruth and tell her I’m on my way,” as she grabbed her keys from an ancient Chinese bowl on the hall table she found a small green stone with the keys. She picked it up, glanced at it, and then slipped it into her purse.
Her pending divorce from Clark Meyer troubled her. Clark had denied the strong calling he had to the Catholic priesthood for so long it was beginning to affect their marriage in subtle ways. Vivian thought it was another woman at first. She was relieved when Clark confessed to her his longing to serve God.
Though there was no question they would have to divorce if Clark was to follow his calling. Vivian could not help wondering why priests were not allowed to marry. Because she cared for Clark a great deal and did not want a divorce, she began doing research and discovered if Clark sought the position of permanent Deacon, he could remain married and still fulfill his desire to serve God in the Catholic Church. Vivian discussed this possibility with several Catholic leaders who confirmed what she had discovered. She was going to speak with Clark about this possibility.
Before they married, they had discussed the potential problem of Vivian being of the Lutheran persuasion and Clark of the Catholic. They decided it would make no difference; they would each attend their own church.
She pulled out of her driveway and drove east to Ruth Shadowitz’s home a few blocks away.
Ruth Emma Shadowitz
Ruth Shadowitz, twenty-eight and single, lived with her parents on S. Beverly Lane, near Vivian Meyer, and Rose Marie Smithson, all members of the Saint Peter Choir. Ruth hung up the telephone after speaking with Rose Marie. “What’s the matter, dear?” Bernice, her mother, looked up from her knitting.
“Oh, we got mixed up as to who was to drive to rehearsal this evening. I thought Rose Marie was going to drive, Vivian thought I was going to drive, and Rose Marie thought Vivian was going to drive.”
“Sounds like you girls are going to be a wee bit late,” Bernice tried to keep from giggling.
“Thanks, Mom, you’re a big help. A little sympathy might be nice.” She paused and looked at her mother, “Are you knitting that shawl you’ve been promising forever?”
“Yes, dear. I am.” She held it up for Ruth’s inspection.
“Mom – it’s beautiful. The girls are going to be so jealous. What did you call it?”
“The pattern name is Harmony; it’s a design from the ‘50’s. I found it on the Internet.”
“You actually got on the computer and into the Internet?” Ruth stared at her mother.
“Sorry to disappoint you, sweetie. Your mother is Internet savvy – almost,” Bernice laughed. “Mother, you never cease to amaze me. I gotta go, Vivian will be here soon. See you later,” Ruth closed the front door behind her as she left the house.
“Bye-bye, sweetheart,” Bernice took her glasses off and looked questioningly at her daughter as she departed. She wondered if Ruth had the baggie with the emerald inside which she had given her earlier in the evening. She found the stone that morning in the bathroom beside towels in the linen cabinet. She thought it might belong to one of Ruth’s girlfriends who had been over for dinner recently. She put her glasses on and continued her knitting, finishing the triple yarn-over row. Now for the crossovers. She was half finished with the shawl. It would be another ten hours of knitting to complete it, plus another hour to attach the fringe, which would have three rows of macramé knots. It was definitely a labor of love. She forged ahead.
Rose Marie Vera Smithson
Rose Marie Smithson, a widow at sixty-two, rocked slowly in an antique rocker in her living room at 620 S. Roosevelt Ave., east of the Scarsdale subdivision. She held her sleeping nine-month-old granddaughter, Sally, while she watched Dale, her three-year-old grandson playing on the living room floor near the fireplace. He had finished building a small house with his building blocks and was preparing to destroy it with the toy truck in his hands. The grandfather clock in the corner softly chimed 6:30. Rose Marie looked at her watch to double check the time. She wondered why her daughter, Megan, was so late in picking up her children. Vivian Meyer was expected at 6:45 to pick her up for choir practice.
Rose Marie decided to gather the grandchildren’s belonging together, so there would be no delay in transferring them to Megan’s car. At 6:37 she heard Megan’s car pull into the driveway. Megan left the motor running and the headlights on as she ran to the front door. “Sorry, Mom, the delay was unavoidable. Here, let me take Sally; you get Dale. The children and their belongings were soon loaded into Megan’s car. As she drove away, Rose Marie closed the front door and heard the grandfather clock chiming 6:45. She looked out the window expecting Vivian. After a minute, she decided to call Vivian on the telephone.
“Vivian, where are you? What? No, I thought it was your turn to drive. Oh, my God, we’re going to be late. Well, I’m ready. Ok. I’ll call Ruth right away. See you soon.” She dialed Ruth’s number and explained what had happened.
This had never happened before. They were always so precise on who was going to drive the next week. She turned on the porch light, stepped outside, closing and locking the door behind her. It would be a few minutes before Vivian arrived. She walked down the driveway to the curbing. In the rush to get the grandchildren into Megan’s car, she had forgotten to mention the emerald she had found in Sally’s basket of toys. She felt her pocket; it was still there. She would call Megan in the morning and ask her about it.
Vivian drove up and stopped. Rose Marie got in and the three of them headed to Saint Peter’s Church, across town. Ten minutes later Vivian had just turned right on a side street near the church when they heard and felt the explosion. Vivian stopped her car. “No, Viv. Go on,” Ruth urged. Vivian pressed the accelerator and drove another block, turned left, and parked her car. “Come on,” the three of them got out of the car and half walked, half ran to the corner of the rectory. They gasped when they saw what had happened. “What about the others?” Ruth cried.
“Let’s find out,” Vivian moved quickly toward the schoolyard. She had seen another choir member in the distance headed toward the foyer of the auditorium. “Let’s go, girls.” They rushed across the rectory lawn into the front yard of the school.
Martin Jason Rudolph
Martin Rudolph, forty-nine, and his wife Alice, forty-six, lived at 240 S. Vale Ave. It was about a ten to fifteen minute drive to Saint Peter’s Church. Martin arrived home late from work and was having dinner with Alice. He looked at the sparkling green stone she had given him when he sat down, explaining she had found it on the edge of the driveway when she had taken the trash down to the curb for pick up that morning. “I wonder if it’s valuable.”
“Probably not; it looks like glass.”
“Oh, Martin, look at the time.” It was already 6:40. He finished his coffee and was getting up from the table when the telephone rang. “I’ll get it.” He put the green stone in his pocket and walked to the telephone in the living room. “Alice, it’s Peter.”
Alice reached for the extension next to the refrigerator. “Peter, I’m so glad it’s you,” Peter was in the Marine Corp. and had gotten leave. He was calling his parents to let them know he would be home in a few days. When the conversation ended, Alice looked at the kitchen clock, “Martin, you’re going to be late.” He grabbed his jacket and keys, kissed Alice on the cheek and was out the door.
He had crossed the railroad tracks and was waiting for the light at the Northwest Highway to change when he heard an explosion and saw the vision of red and orange clouds of rolling smoke ascending into the heavens.
The traffic light changed, he crossed the highway, drove another two blocks, turned left, and parked his truck. There was no doubt the explosion had come from the church. He ran to the corner of the rectory. The church building was gone. All he could think of were the other choir members who were in the church when it exploded. The steeple had fallen forward into the street. When he saw people standing in front of the schoolhouse, he ran across the rectory lawn. He saw Dale and Jennifer Benson waving for him to follow them as they headed to the auditorium foyer.
The Reverend Jeremiah Paul Stephan
It was 1 pm. The Reverend Jeremiah Stephan was conducting his weekly visit at the senior retirement home in Arlington Heights, before attending choir rehearsal that evening. As he moved through the hallway he was approached by Father Frederick Monahan.
“Excuse me, Reverend Stephan?”
Jeremiah was somewhat surprised – he had never seen this priest before. “Yes, Father, is there something I can do for you?”
“Actually, there is something you can do for me, Jeremiah. You have a meeting with the choir members at your church this evening?”
“Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I do. How is it you know my name?” Jeremiah was bewildered. “Have we met before?”
“Oh, no, but I know a great deal about you and the fine work you are doing. What is important at the moment is this.” Father Frederick handed Jeremiah a gold cross with one emerald encrusted in the center. “I would appreciate it if you would take this and present it to your choir members this evening. They will understand when they see it.”
Jeremiah took the cross without objection and looked at it carefully for a few seconds, “Yes, of course, I’ll be happy to …” when he looked up, the priest was gone. He looked in all directions – the priest had vanished. Somewhat mystified at what had happened, he placed the cross in his pocket and proceeded with his rounds.
He had an early dinner in the cafeteria with a few of the seniors he knew well, lingering longer than usual. It was 6:35 when he noticed the time. “I must dash, my friends – choir practice tonight.” He bade them farewell and hurried to his car in the parking lot. As he approached, he noticed one of the rear tires was extremely low on air. He stopped in a filling station nearby; the station attendant assisted him in filling the tire with air, advising him to be careful as there was probably a slow leak in the tire. Jeremiah thanked the young man. He looked at his watch; he was going to be late. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would, however, be the first time in his memory he had been late for choir practice.
As he drove toward Saint Peter’s, he reviewed the strange encounter he had with the priest. And the cross – he was certain it was solid gold, but why did he want him to give it to the choir members? The priest had not mentioned anyone’s name in particular. He gave up and concentrated on his driving.
The dashboard clock read 7 pm when he heard the deafening explosion and saw the red glow coming from the direction of the church. Frightened to drive any farther, he pulled over to the curb, shut off the engine, pulled the parking brake into place and got out of the car.
The red glow was still visible as distant sirens grew closer. He ran the last two blocks toward the church. If it were the church, then everyone would be dead. He found it impossible to wrap his brain around such a possibility. He came to the corner of the rectory and saw what he feared. The church was gone. All that remained was a heap of burning rubble.
He ran up the front stairs of the rectory and pushed open the front door. His wife, Judith, ran to him from a back room.
“Oh, Jeremiah, you’re all right. I thought you were dead when I heard the explosion.” His four children heard his voice and ran from the back room. They were not crying, but fear was evident in the way they clung to their father’s legs. Jeremiah knelt down and embraced them – comforting them with hugs and kisses. “What of the others?” Judith touched her husband’s shoulder.
“I don’t know, Judith. I was late.”
Police and Fire Department vehicles were arriving; Jeremiah stood up and told Judith not to let the children out of the house. He ran down the front stairs and into the gathering crowd, fielding questions to which he did not have the answers. He hurried across the front lawn of the school building and ran toward the auditorium foyer doors. He saw Martha Winkelman as soon as he passed through the doorway.
She turned and ran to him. “Oh, Jeremiah,” she broke into tears. The lights in the cafeteria came on as he embraced her.
“Come along; let’s go into the cafeteria.” They walked with others who had gathered in the foyer, down a half flight of stairs into the brightly lit room. Jeremiah and Martha moved to one of the larger round tables.
Dale Benson and his wife rushed up to them. “Oh, thank God, you’re okay,” Dale exclaimed. “Are there any others?”
“I don’t know,” came Jeremiah’s woeful answer.
As they seated themselves at the table, Ulla ran up to the table with Gene Freeman beside her. Within minutes, all the choir members found their way into the cafeteria and were assembling around the cafeteria table. Tears and laughter mingled as they realized they had all survived. Word of their survival spread rapidly. Near chaos ensued as everyone wanted to speak with them.
As the fire was brought under control the crowd began to move outside for a closer inspection of what had happened. Jeremiah remembered the cross, withdrew it and laid it in the center of the table.
Each member of the choir looked to him for an explanation. “I met a Catholic priest at the home for the aged this afternoon. He stopped me in the hallway and gave me this cross. He asked that I give it to you. He said you would know what it meant.”
Ulla Schulig was the first, “Oh, my God.” She opened her purse and extracted the emerald she had found in the bottom of the box of weaving thread and placed the stone in several of the niches of the cross until she found the one it fit. There were gasps throughout the group as the memory of their own acquisitions surfaced. One by one they put forth the stones that had come into their possession. Within many seconds the cross was once again complete.
Dale Benson was the first to break the silence which had engulfed them, “What does it mean?”
Rose Marie Smithson knew the answer immediately, “It means, it was no accident all of us were late,” they looked at one another in astonishment.
“But how could this be?” Glenn Clausing mused.
Vivian Meyer reached across the table, “Jeremiah, who was the priest who spoke to you. What was his name?”
“I don’t know, Vivian. Our meeting was so brief, I never thought to ask.”
“Well, whoever he was, he knew. But how did he know?” Vivian spoke what everyone was thinking.
“Look!” Someone shouted. All eyes shifted to the cross. It began to sparkle as if a distant light focused on it and then dissolved into thin air.
“It’s gone,” gasped Myra Beckway. She looked at Brad Benson, “It’s gone.” As everyone began to talk, the lilting sound of someone playing the piano in the auditorium above filtered down into the cafeteria. Conversations trailed off.
“Who’s that?” Someone asked. Martha Winkelman stood up and practically shouted, “That’s Russ.”
Duane Engelking asked, “Russ who?”
She did not answer his question as she left the table and headed for the stairway. Everyone thought it a good idea to follow her. Martha entered the darkened auditorium and stood still as the choir members gathered around her – listening to Joplin’s Peacherine being played in the dark. Someone found the light switch. “Russell!” Martha shouted as she hurried across the auditorium to the piano tucked away near the stage.
“Hi, Ms. Winkelman. I couldn’t find the light switch,” Russ grinned.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came over when I heard what had happened and thought you folks would need a little cheering up. I hope I did the right thing?” Now, he wasn’t so sure.
“Yes, of course, you did. Everyone, I’d like you to meet Russell Flagg,” Martha proceeded to introduce each member of the choir. They thanked Russell for his impromptu contribution as well as the brilliance of his playing.
Gene Freeman climbed onto the stage, “Hey everyone. This is rehearsal night – remember? Since we’re here – and alive, why don’t we do what we usually do on a Wednesday evening – rehearse. Since there isn’t a church any longer, next Sunday’s service will probably be held here,” he paused, looking at the group. Then he held up the music portfolio he had with him. “I brought the music with me.” Everyone agreed with him enthusiastically in spite of the fact it was 8:30. Gene handed he music to Russ and discussed with Gene the priority of the pieces of music. Brad Benson and his mother, Jennifer, sat on the edge of the stage.
As rehearsal began, the joy that they were still alive was evident as their voices rose together in brilliant harmony. The sound traveled down to the cafeteria and outside to the crowd gathered in the front yard of the school. One-by-one, friends and neighbors began to come into the auditorium – drawn by the beautiful voices which rose over the disaster across the street. The choir had miraculously survived death and were rehearsing for next Sunday’s church service. By the time they finished rehearsing, the auditorium was filled with admiring listeners – some sitting, some standing – everyone applauding.
By Sunday morning, the auditorium had been transformed into the new church setting. The bleachers were extended and folding chairs filled the open area. The stage was overflowing with flowers donated by the well-wishing community. Few hymnals were available so, someone thought up the brilliant idea of projecting the stanzas of each hymn onto a screen set up on the stage. The room was filled to capacity by the time the first piano chords for the opening hymn floated across the assembly – played by Russell Flagg.
As the opening hymn was completed, Jeremiah stepped to the speaker’s podium. “Our beautiful old church building is gone. But we are here this morning – all of us – on this beautiful Sunday morning. Thank God Almighty,” applause interrupted Jeremiah.
“Thank you for being here this morning. And a special thanks to the lads of our Fire Department who so ably did their job in extinguishing the fire. The outflow of love represented by these glorious flowers is truly unprecedented. So they will not go to waste, we will be taking them to the Home for the Aged after the service. We welcome assistance from anyone who may be going that way this morning. The residents of the home will no doubt be pleased.
“And a special thanks to those who have volunteered in the cleanup which lay ahead of us. School is still in session and those broken windows in the front of the schoolhouse need to be closed up until new panes of glass can be installed. The broken glass is of particular concern to us. The cafeteria will be open with refreshments until early evening.”
Jeremiah paused, looking over the assembly. “By now, you are aware that all fifteen members of the choir group, who were to meet in the church across the street for choir practice at 7 pm Wednesday evening, survived the devastation and are with us safe and sound this morning,” more applause erupted.
“They survived – because they were late. And they were late by only five or six minutes. Fifteen people who have never been late for rehearsal in all the time I have been associated with them. Even I was late, which is extraordinary,” he laughed. “One cannot help wondering why. Accidental, perhaps, but highly unlikely. Then why? And yes, some will immediately say God did it. Let’s go a little deeper than that.
“The presence of God, what does that mean? True, we will agree it is a power governing us, caring for us, protecting us, maintaining and sustaining us. Then the question arises when that caring and protection does not seem to work. When that sense of separation rears its ugly head …” Jeremiah paused, “… the answer lies in the word ‘consciousness.’ God must become an activity in each individual’s consciousness – or we shall struggle through life as human beings believing in and experiencing the two powers – the power of good and the power of evil. There was no separation last night. The consciousness of the presence of God was functioning full throttle in each of these fifteen souls.
“God does not exist without a consciousness through which to act. God must have saints, sages, seers as well as carpenters, housewives, laborers, and yes, even members of a choir.” Applause. “We must master the principle of oneness. When this oneness becomes a conviction deep within us, we will find our peace with one another. If we embrace this oneness, we shall quickly see how true it is. Going to the market we will realize everyone we meet is of this same oneness we are.
“The same life animates them, the same soul, the same love, and the same joy, the same peace, the same desire for good.
“We, of course, cannot use God, We can, however, yield ourselves to God and let God use us. We must give up our personal sense of selfhood, with its heavy load of responsibility, and let the Divine Presence take over. And there is no reason in the world why we cannot begin this minute. This minute we can begin to realize that only God functions as our being, only God functions as any and every person on the face of the earth – throughout the Universe.
“To practice the principle, which is no easy task – to practice that God is the activity of our being, hour after hour, day in, day out, month in, month out – holding to God as the law of our being, the source of our good, the activity of our day – ultimately changes our entire experience as well as those with whom we come in contact.
“God is the infinite intelligence of this universe, which formed it, maintains and sustains it. And this may come as a surprise to many – but the Infinite accomplishes this – without any human advice from us. If God can do that – the least we can do is trust our individual being, body, and mind, to the same Presence and Power.
“It matters not how high and mighty you may be or how low and insignificant you may be – you are nothing. You are nothing until the Grace of God touches you, until the Spirit of God dwells in you until the finger of the Christ consciousness moves you. From then on, you are the eternal expression of life, the example of a way-shower. Never is it you – nor is it me.
“God is never absent except in our belief. We must cease this nonsensical belief in a God who punishes and rewards, a God who is present when we experience a healing and absent when we do not experience a healing we expected. God is never absent from us except in our belief – in our fear of other powers which we have set up in our mind. We not only fear these false powers. Sometimes we even fear God.
“Remember – God is the only law, the only power which maintains and sustains the harmony and perfection of its own creation – at all times,” Jeremiah paused a few seconds gazing out at the assembly. “May the Grace of God be with you. Thank you for being with us today. Good morning everyone.”
He stepped away from the speaker’s stand and walked off the stage. As he walked from the stage door and stood next to Russ at the piano – no one in the audience was moving. He wondered what was going on. He looked at Russ for an answer. Russ shrugged his shoulders. Jeremiah walked out in front of the audience and began shaking hands with folks in the front row as he moved to the doorway of the auditorium. The assembly began to disperse, slowly and with reluctance.
Fifteen people survived the worst disaster Arlington Heights had ever experienced. The dedication service for the beautiful new church, located at 111 W. Olive St., was held at 6:30, Saturday evening, May 1, 1999. A joyous crowd of celebrants, including the survivors, were present for the ceremony. Unnoticed among those in the standing room area at the back of the sanctuary stood the smiling Father Frederick Monahan, whose partially open black coat revealed a solid gold cross encrusted with sixteen beautiful emeralds. The church bell, rescued from the ashes of the old building, had been installed in the tower of the new church. At 7 pm, the service ended when the bell once again rang out.
The following afternoon, Brad Benson and Myra Beckway were married in the new sanctuary of Saint Peter’s Church. Each of their gold wedding bands had a small emerald embedded on the inside of the ring next to the inscriptions they had chosen.
Martha Winkelman was the organist, and Russell Flagg surprised everyone as the vocalist. After their wedding trip to Hawai’i, Brad and Myra Benson moved into their new home – a gift from Brad’s parents – located on S. Fernandez Ave. across the street from Pioneer Park in the beautiful Village of Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Authors Note: The author of this story was born and raised in Arlington Heights. The locations are authentic. The characters are fictitious. Some of their names are partially true. The church and school are gone now. They were victims of progress, not a gas explosion.