October 30th marks the 75th Anniversary of the Saint Francis University fire that destroyed the heart of the campus, the buildings known as Old Main. The campus and community will commemorate the event during mass on October 26th at noon as well as with a display of newspaper clippings from the period located in the library.
The cornerstone for the first of the buildings that would come to comprise old main was laid in 1848, soon after the university’s founding. By 1880, there were four separate wings to the old main complex, housing classrooms, dormitories, the chapel and a dining room.
Though a few other buildings did exist on campus (Raymond Hall, Doyle Hall and Schwab Hall), the majority of academic, spiritual, social and domestic life was centered in old main -- until a fire on Halloween Eve in 1942 destroyed the entire structure sparing only the bell.
The fire, which was discovered at about 5am, spread with such rapidity that priests, brothers and students were forced to flee from their rooms and unable to save any personal belongings. Thankfully, no one was injured.
The heaviest loss was in the library, where many original documents and irreplaceable records were destroyed, including the priceless library of the Rev. Demetrius Gallitzin, “prince-priest of the Alleghenies,” who founded the Catholic town of Loretto.
Fortunately, a group called “Friends of Saint Francis College” had weeks earlier purchased the nearby estate of former steel magnate Charles Schwab, and donated it to the (then) college. Students lived on the estate and attended classes there during the initial stages of campus reconstruction. That reconstruction took place around the campus mall instead of on it, as you will note from the resulting campus blueprint of today.