A Bond Forever


Reprinted from an article in the Providence College alumni magazine, May 18, 2021.

The family tradition that is Providence College has been manifested over the decades in many and various ways. Generations of Friars have attended PC. (In my case: my dad John M. Reynolds ‘40, my cousin Kathy ’73, my sisters Ann ’78 and Mary Beth ’84, and me ’80. My husband James ‘79even though we didn’t know each other then, and his father Ray, also ‘79.) it’s a family tradition! Many of my classmates have sent their children to PC. For those of us who were students in the late 1970s, there is one event that has, and always will, define us.

To write about the Aquinas Hall dormitory fire of December 13, 1977, a tragedy that ultimately claimed the lives of 10 young women, prompts sharp and difficult memories. Memories of youth and innocence, of traveling back through time to golden days full of promise and hope. And in one night, much of our innocence and sense of invincibility was lost.

In 1977, there were no cell phones, no internet, no texts or Skype or Zoom. There was no Netflix or Hulu, no TSA at the airports, no ATMs, no AIDS. The Berlin Wall still stood, and Jimmy Carter was the president. There was great (and not-so-great) music, and if you were dining in Raymond Cafeteria, you might have heard Donna Summer singing about leaving a cake out in the rain at “MacArthur Park” over the intercom system. We wore clogs and Fair Isle sweaters, and we sported Dorothy Hamill haircuts.

Family and friends of the Aquinas Hall fire victims receive Holy Communion during a memorial Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence on Dec. 18, 1977. (Photo from Providence College magazine)

For many young women in the mid-1970s, going away to college was an important part of the rite-of-passage experience. A different state perhaps, a new dormitory adventure, and roommates! For some of us, the entire experience was unfamiliar. And daunting. But that’s how bonds begin. Everyone is starting out and going through the same unfamiliar rituals, to varying degrees. Few of us had cars, so our entertainment consisted of basketball or hockey games at Alumni Hall or Schneider Arena, tipping a few pitchers at the Rat, the occasional concert or lecture at ’64 Hall, or just hanging out in each other’s dorm rooms or in Mural Lounge, where the hot ham and cheese grinder was $1 and an ice cream cone was just a quarter.

There were three dorms for girls (which is what we were in those days): Meagher, McVinney, and Aquinas. Each dorm had its own personality, and all three buildings faced what is known as the Quad — a quadrangle of green space flanked by the three women’s dorms, plus McDermott Hall for boys. There were girls who met each other as roommates freshman year and stayed friends forever. And there were attachments forged through tragedy.

I’ve written about that December day, listing all 10 of the young women, even though I only knew two of them well enough to greet by name. But because we’re so connected, because we’re family, all of us, our Friar community is linked by the tragic Aquinas fire.

On Dec. 13, 2002, the 25th anniversary of the Aquinas Hall fire, Providence College dedicated an alcove in the new St. Dominic Chapel to the 10 women who died. They are remembered at a memorial Mass in the chapel each December. The Mass was livestreamed for the first time in 2020. (Photo from Providence College magazine)

When people die young, at the very beginning of their adult lives, one can’t help but imagine what they would have become, how their lives might have turned out. The 10 girls who died in the fire that snowy night will remain youthful in our memories.

Every year in December we stop to remember, because we can’t ever forget. When I return to the Providence College campus, I pause to look up at the fourth-floor windows of Aquinas and offer a prayer for the girls who perished, and for their family members. But I also pray for the girls who survived. One of those survivors told me that for many years, she tried to figure out why she was saved, what was her purpose. Was it her marriage? The birth of her child? She said it took decades to realize she was saved for many reasons, and she tries, even now, to understand. It’s a question that is beyond comprehension, she said. So she focuses on what matters in her life: kindness, expressing to loved ones how much they mean, letting go of anger, cherishing friends.

All these years later and the memories can be as sharp as yesterday. That’s the thing about memory, even as we grow older. Now in our 60s, we often joke about forgetting the most meaningless things, yet none of us can forget the fire. I can remember a conversation with Katie, or the last time I saw Debbie.

Life is filled with moments — some so happy you’ll swear you must be dreaming, and some so tragic you wonder, for years, why they occurred. But if I can learn a lesson from my friend Kim, it is to find joy in small moments, to express kindness, and forgiveness, whenever possible, and to give thanks to the tightly knit community that is Providence College.

Martha Reynolds McVeigh ’80 ended an accomplished career as a fraud investigator and in the past 10 years has written ten novels. Her novel, Villa del Sol, was awarded the 2018 Book Prize in Literary Fiction by the Independent Publishers of New England.

Our Day of Remembrance


grotto-300x286

I wasn’t sure what to title this annual tribute. My previous posts about December 13 are listed here, if you want to revisit them:

https://marthareynoldswrites.com/2012/12/12/ten-young-women/

https://marthareynoldswrites.com/2013/12/13/bring-all-the-priests/

https://marthareynoldswrites.com/2014/12/12/what-december-13th-means-to-us/

https://marthareynoldswrites.com/2015/12/12/the-memory-of-sense/

We were all affected by the Aquinas fire in 1977, whether we slept through the event (as I did) or witnessed it first-hand and survived. 39 years later, that memory is as sharp as it was then.

My classmate Michelle Dumont Vezina ’80 writes, “I experienced December 13th somewhat as an outsider looking in. We stayed up late that night studying for finals. We must have been in a deep sleep when everything was happening.

“I remember calling my parents to tell them. They had heard that morning that the largest dorm at Providence College was on fire. They assumed McVinney was the largest because of its height and thought I had been in the fire. They were relieved when I called.

“My mother picked me up that morning for what became the beginning of Christmas break. The campus was quiet, eerily so. I remember looking at Aquinas Chapel from my dorm room window, thinking about the girls who died.

“At that time, I had never experienced death of anyone close to me.  I didn’t really understand the feeling. No one really understands until they lose someone close to them.”

*****

A survivor, Kim Fasolo Martin ’80 writes, “December 13, 1977 changed every part of me down to my soul. For many years, I tried to figure out a specific event in my life that I was saved for, such as my marriage or the birth of my child. It took me decades to realize that I was saved for many reasons. I try to give the lessons that I learned from that terrible night to anyone who will listen. These are some of these lessons that I live by:

“Be kind to people. Tell your loved ones how much they mean to you and how much you love them every chance you get. Never go to bed mad at anyone. Cherish your friends. Do not judge people for how they act until you know what has happened in their life.

“There are so many more lessons that I learned and am still learning.

“All the women who suffered this tragedy on December 13, 1977 share a bond that cannot be broken even if we have not spoken to each other.

“Sometimes, out of tragedies, there is good and when this happens,  we have to share this good to anyone who will listen.”
*****

The Aquinas fire claimed the lives of ten women living on the north end of Aquinas Hall’s fourth floor on Dec. 13, 1977. Katie Andresakes ’80, Jackie Botelho ’79, Barbara Feeney ’81, Donna Galligan ’81, Sallyann Garvey ’81, Gretchen Ludwig ’81, Cathy Repucci ’81, Laura Ryan ’81, Debbie Smith ’78, and Dotty Widman ’81.

What December 13th Means to Us


War Memorial Grotto - Providence College
War Memorial Grotto – Providence College

For the past few years, I’ve posted here and again last year about a fire. A dormitory fire at Providence College on December 13, 1977 that claimed the lives of ten young women. If, like me, you were a student at PC, or the parent of a student, a sibling, close friend, or alumnus, this event most likely has stayed with you, even 37 years later.

We remember December 13 every year, with memories as fresh and painful as they were decades earlier. December 13 is the date. Not December 12. We don’t commemorate the terrorist attacks on September 10, or remember Pearl Harbor Day on December 6.

Robin Craig Piebes (PC ’80) recalls: “When I talk to people about Providence College and what sets it apart, it’s that community. It was being taken in by girls I didn’t know that night. It was being given their clothes to wear, watching boys move cars and carry girls who had no shoes. It was the comfort a college president gave by living in the dorm with us afterwards and sending flowers every holiday. All of these things are what I have always thought of Providence to be.”

When we were students, there were so many daily Masses, you could attend a quick service between classes at this Catholic college. Today, there are Masses on Sunday and on weekdays, but no scheduled Mass on Saturday. The college chose not to hold a special service on December 13 (Saturday) this year, and that’s too bad. Because December 13 is the day we remember.

 

The comfort of having a friend may be taken away, but not that of having had one.
Seneca

Note: The college decided to hold a memorial Mass on December 13 at 8:00am, after pleas from alumni.

Ten Young Women


Written last year and re-posted in memory of the ten young women who died as a result of a tragic fire at Providence College, 35 years ago.

We had our Christmas party that night, and there was wine.  Plenty of wine and nowhere to go except down the hall, around the corner, and back to the room I shared with Wilma.  We did a Secret Santa that year.  I can’t remember who I picked, or who picked me, or what gift I gave, or what I received.  Our floor, McVinney 4th, didn’t participate in the decorating contest; no one volunteered to organize it.  Besides, the girls in Aquinas usually won anyway.

It snowed that night, and some of the girls walked to the quad, to join in throwing snow at boys they liked.  Wilma and I stayed inside, talking about musical theatre with Eileen and Rosemary.

I was sleeping soundly.  Wilma woke up first to the pounding on the door.

“Is there anyone else in this room besides you two?”  It was our Resident Assistant, a senior named Kathy.

“No,” Wilma mumbled, thinking that Kathy was asking if we had boys in the room.  We weren’t supposed to let boys stay over.  Parietals, they called it.  No boys allowed.  But Kathy wasn’t looking for boys.  She was looking for the girls.

The telephone rang.  It was my sister Ann, a senior living in Meagher Hall.  There were only three girls’ dorms: Aquinas, McVinney and Meagher.  I lived in Aquinas freshman year.  Aquinas 228, with Judy and Brenda.  Aquinas 2nd South.

The 4th floor North of Aquinas did a magnificent job with decorations.  Even a manger scene illuminated by a gooseneck desk lamp.  Paper over everything.

Ann called Mom and Dad to let them know. To tell them we were okay.  That there would be news on television.

Wilma and I dressed quickly.  No time to think, just pull clothes on.  We filed out of McVinney with the other girls and walked to the cafeteria in Raymond Hall.  Wilma said “Don’t look,” but I looked.

We tried to remember which of our friends lived up there. Debbie.  Katy, Ellen, Mary Alice.  Kim, Terry, Robin.  Girls we’d see in class, in the Rathskellar, girls we’d drink beers with.  I saw Kim and Terry; they were looking for someone. “We think Katy’s at the hospital.” Katy’s boyfriend Jeff had a look in his eyes I’d never seen before.

Dad drove up from Warwick and brought Ann and me home.  I learned the names, and didn’t think I’d ever forget them.  Ever.  But except for Katy and Debbie, I had to look them up when I was writing this piece, and for that, I’m sorry.

The Aquinas fire claimed the lives of ten women living on the north end of Aquinas Hall’s fourth floor on Dec. 13, 1977. Katy Andresakes ’80, Jackie Botelho ’81, Barbara Feeney ’81, Donna Galligan ’81, Sallyann Garvey ’81, Gretchen Ludwig ’81, Cathy Repucci ’81, Laura Ryan ’81, Debbie Smith ’78, and Dotty Widman ’81.