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(authors icon)1918

ON THE AFTERNOON of Friday, the thirteenth, I had about finished my labors on the desolate banks of Peshtigo River. The corpses found had all been decently interred, and the sick and maimed carried to different places of safety. Exhausted with fatigue and privation, I felt I could not bear up much longer, and accordingly took place in a wagon that had brought us supplies, and was now returning to Oconto in which latter town I had friends who were awaiting my arrival with friendly impatience. I enjoyed two days of the rest at the residence of Father Vermore [A. Vermere], the excellent parish priest of the French church. Monday following I left for Green Bay to visit his Lordship, Bishop Joseph Melcher, dead, alas, even now while I write these lines.

As often happens in such cases, the most contradictory rumors had been circulated with regard to myself. Some declared that I had been burned in the church whither I had gone to pray a moment previous to the outburst of the storm, others asserted that I had met a fiery death in my own abode, whilst many were equally positive that I had perished in the river.

On seeing me the Bishop, who had naturally been rendered anxious by these contradictory reports, eagerly exclaimed: "Oh! at last! I have been so troubled about you! Why did you not write?" "My Lord, I could not," was my reply, "I had neither pen, ink, nor paper, nothing but river water."

He generously offered me every thing I required, either from his library or wardrobe, but I declined the kind offer, as there were still a number of my parishioners on the river Menominee and it was for them to help, not him. He then wished to appoint me to another parish, declaring that I merited repose after all I had endured, and that a farther sojourn among my people, poor and decimated in number, would be only a continuation of suffering and hard toil. Remembering, however, that my parishioners would thus be left without a priest at a time when the ministrations of one would be doubly necessary to them, recalling, also, how much better it was that their poverty and privations should be shared by one who knew and loved them, I solicited and obtained permission to remain among my flock. Soon, however, the sufferings I had endured began to tell on my constitution; and to such an extent that, having been invited by the Rev. Mr. [P.] Crud, parish priest of Green Bay, to preach on All Saints, he was told by Bishop Melcher he must not count on me as my brain was seriously injured by the fiery ordeal through which I had passed. I cannot well say whether this was really the case. I know that I was terribly feeble, and hoping that a few months' repose might restore my health, I resolved to travel, determined to make the trip conducive at the same time to the welfare of my impoverished parishes. My first intention was to visit Louisiana returning by the East, but I was destined soon to learn that my strength was unequal to the task. Arrived at St. Louis, was attacked by a fever that kept me confined to the bed each day for three or four hours, and which made sad inroads on the small stock of health left me. Accordingly I went no farther. The kind people of St. Louis showed me a great deal of sympathy, and I made friends among them whom I can never forget, and whom meeting with once more would be a source of great pleasure. I will not mention their names here, but they are written on my heart in ineffaceable characters. I can do nothing myself to prove my gratitude, but I will whisper their names to our most powerful and most clement Lady of Lourdes, in her church of Marinette, and she will atone for my incapacity.

Having mentioned the claims of the inhabitants of St. Louis on my gratitude, it would be unjust on my part to pass in silence over those of my own parishioners and friends in Wisconsin, who spontaneously offered me help in the first moments of distress. Ah, they are not forgotten! Very pleasant is it to recall these warm expressions of sympathy, springing directly from the heart. Amongst many similar traits, well do I remember the words of a friend in Oconto who, wishing me to accept decent garments to replace those which I had brought back from the conflagration exclaimed on my persistent refusal, "I insist, for well I know that, if I happened to be in your place, you would equally desire to render me a similar service."

Pernin, Peter. The great Peshtigo fire : an eyewitness account. Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971. Reprinted from the Wisconsin Magazine of History, 54: 246-272 (Summer, 1971).
Copyright © 1971 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
From the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Pam 78-4295.

"A new edition of The Great Peshtigo Fire by Reverend Peter Pernin is available from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The edition includes a foreword by Stephen J. Pyne, new full-color maps, and numerous new illustrations."