“Utterly Destroyed”

As told by Sister Laurentine McGuire who experienced the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. Edited for length.

The earthquake lasted 55 seconds, but what seconds…they seemed like hours. Our beautiful home at the Mission soon was utterly destroyed. The only place that escaped damage was the children’s refectory. The house moved over an inch off its foundation. Who can imagine our feelings when we saw, and heard everything falling around us. Again picture us as we went from room to room, and saw everything in this awful state – plaster off the walls, pictures, statues and dishes broken. Every statue in the chapel was broken except the Sacred Heart which did not even move from the pedestal. Oh! What a scene! Shall I ever forget it? (No, never)  Our dear Superior had a narrow escape. An immense press in her room came within a foot from falling on her, also Sr. Mary Ambrose. She was in the kitchen, and was just starting the fire when the shaking began. She became so frightened she ran outside, and with that the brick chimney from the kitchen fell. There she was with these bricks falling around her.

gov-quake photo1
The burning of Mission Street. Government photo.

After the shock Sr. Superior told us to go out of the house as quick as we could and remain in the yard. As we were coming down there was another shock. Well, we almost broke our necks getting down the stairs. Many of the Sisters jumped three or four steps. When we reached the yard several of the Sisters cried out, “Oh look! The city is on fire.” It was only too true. Fire broke out about five minutes after the earthquake, and there was no water to extinguish it for the main pipes had been broken.

The city by that time was raging with fire which was gaining great headway on account of no water. They tried to check it by blasting the buildings three or four blocks ahead. At twelve o’clock we had dinner. Sister managed to fry a little meat and potatoes on the stove. It was not long after that when we received word not to light any fire whatever. During dinner, word was brought to us by a niece of Sr. Leocadie that St. Ignatius Church and the College was in flames. She had just passed that way and saw it. How our hearts sank at this news full of pity for the dear Fathers. We then commenced to feel the danger for ourselves but the Fathers and everyone coming in assured us we need not fear as we were perfectly safe. After dinner Sr. Superior and the Sisters walked around the yard reciting the Rosary and other prayers.

About four o’clock Sr. Superior began to feel uneasy so she called the Sisters together and told them they had better pack a few things in case anything should happen. Each Sister packed her own bedding, Sunday habit, apron, veil, prayer books and any little thing she would like to have. After this we had a cold supper, all longing for a hot cup of tea or coffee. During supper there was another shock and we all ran for the yard, some Sisters with a cracker or piece of cake in their hands. We had to leave our plates for we had no water to wash them. About seven o’clock that evening Rev. Father Tobin came over and walked around the yard with the Sisters reciting the Rosary, Litanies and other prayers. He told us to pray that Our Dear Lord would turn fire down towards the bay. He also gave us a few words of advice which in some way heightened our already heavy hearts. But, of course, the feeling of fear was still there.

The whole city was like day from the fire. We spent the rest of the night outside in the yard praying until about three o’clock. Rev. Father Cummings came over to say Mass. We received Holy Communion. After Mass we still remained in the yard which was black with flying cinders.

Thursday came, Father Cummings and Father Tobin still telling us we were safe, there was no danger. The fire was then nearing Valencia St. About nine o’clock the same morning Thomas, our working man, told Superior he thought it would be wise to leave the place, there being no danger as yet, but on account of so many old and ailing Sisters it would be safer. This wagon took mostly all our bundles which consisted of Chapel things and provisions. Just then Captain Seymour came along with his conveyance and offered to help us. We gave him a few more bundles with the old and feeble Sisters who were unable to walk and he drove them to Dubois Park. What a parting this was, all crying to break their hearts to leave our beautiful and peaceful home. Many are the happy hours our loved community spent together in that dear old Mission on 16th and Dolores St., now to be broken. No one can realize what it was unless they went through it themselves. No one but God alone knew our feelings on that dreadful day.

We all left carrying our bedding with us. People were running wild in the streets looking for those near and dear to them who were lost. Just before leaving two dear young women with their infants a few weeks old came in and asked if they would remain with us until Father came to baptize the little ones. Both had fled from their homes. On my way to the Park I passed a young woman who did not look to be more than twenty, and who seemed to be mad with grief. I also noticed she was carrying a white bundle. I watched her, then a soldier stopped and said something. With this she screamed something terribly. After a short time he walked on with her. I was told by a lady that this dear young woman was carrying her dear and only infant three months old and it was dead. A brick had fallen on its head and killed it instantly. The soldier noticed blood on the white bundle so asked her what she had. She thought he was going to take it from her so screamed and begged him not to do that. She told him she was trying to get to Alameda as she had friends there, then she would have it buried. He let her keep it as she promised to bury it, then he showed her the way down to the ferry.

Well at last we reached the park. Nearly all the Sisters were there already as it was after eleven when we left Sr. Superior however and a few Sisters did not leave the place until about three o’clock in the afternoon. They remained and packed a few more things and sent them to a friend’s house. We stayed on the hills all day surrounded by people of all classes, nothing to eat but crackers and fruit. Some of the Sisters were so sick they would not hold their heads up, so we made beds out of the bundles and had them lie down. That afternoon two ladies came down with a big pot of hot tea and served the Sisters themselves. You can imagine how we enjoyed it. At about four o’clock Mr. Hoffman who lived next to the Convent came all the way to the park with his sore foot which had been hurt by a brick falling upon it to tell us we were safe and out of danger. The fire he said was going down Mission St. past 16th. This was like a message from Heaven. We fully intended to go back to the convent and spend the night in the yard.

Several of the Sisters then went down as far as they could to watch the fire, as ropes were all across the streets. Suddenly the fire turned up 17th St., Of course there were no hopes for us then. They watched it until the laundry caught fire, then the kitchen and chapel. They came crying up to us. We could imagine the sad news they were bringing us. Our beautiful convent was a mass of flames and we could see them leap high in the air. Who can imagine the anguish of our hearts at that awful moment. Not an eye was left dry. Just then two soldiers drove up with a wagon full of provisions and called upon Sister Superior to take charge of distributing the food to those who were in need. This helped to distract our dear Superior who was already beside herself.

About seven o’clock several of the Sisters went up to the German Hospital to spend the night in an old shed. All the old Sisters stayed there as they were not able to go on. Some had mattresses to be on, others sat up in chairs.

Between eight and nine o’clock the superior of the Franciscan Sisters at St. Joseph’s Hospital came down and asked those that remained in the park to spend the night with them, so we did. Sister sent down their conveyance to take some of our bundles, and a few of the ailing Sisters, the rest of us had to foot it. Off we started. There were so many infants born in the park. Mothers and infants died. The doctors told us it was a pitiful sight to see those mothers cling to their dead babes when they took them away. There were a number of sad cases like this.

It was twelve o’clock that night before Sr. Superior and a few Sisters reached the Hospital. No words can express the kindness we met with from these dear Sisters and from every one. It brought tears to every eye. The dear Sisters had to cook outdoors themselves and not only this but there were three hundred patients relying on their care. I will not say any more about the kindness of every one because as I said before I cannot find words strong enough to express it. The new wing of the hospital was not in use so we occupied that. The dear Sisters supplied us with mattresses and we slept on the floor. We all had to wash in the same water and use the one towel. The second night we were there orders came not to use a single candle or light of any kind. One of the Sisters went down to ask permission to use only one candle as it was impossible to attend the sick without a light, so she obtained the permission. We had our meals before the Sisters themselves and they waited upon us. One dear old Sister told us that it was impossible she could not do enough for us, as we were all Sisters working for the same end, the honor and glory of God.

Saturday came. Oh, that was a sad day. In the morning we had three Masses and Holy Communion. After Mass we came down to breakfast. Before starting to eat dear Sister Superior gave us all a parting advice. She began by saying before dinner we would all be separated. At these words every Sister broke down and dear Sr. Superior herself. She also said that wherever we were sent to accept it as coming from the hand of God. It was His Will for us, and to be humble, submissive and obedient, nothing would give her greater pleasure than this. After this Sr. Superior gave us her parting blessing. Every Sister cried like a child. We clung to dear Sister Superior until she said, “Well, now, my dear child you have to go as the conveyance is here.”

As we drove down Market St. It was such a sight to behold. Every building was entirely destroyed. People were out in the middle of the streets with little fires trying to cook a meal, three or four families cooking at the same fire. I do not know when the other Sisters left the City, but Sr. Superior with several Sisters, did not leave until late Saturday night.

Our experience that one week in the city will never be forgotten.