As advanced as America is, it remains at the mercy of the primal fury of nature, which can destroy in days or even hours what took decades to build. But in the face of such destruction, America can still see hope…if it has faith.
This is the Forgotten History of the Miracle in the Flames.
The priest glared impatiently up the river as he pulled out his pocket watch. His steamboat was at least an hour late and he wondered if it would ever arrive. Father Peter Pernin needed to leave, and he needed to leave now. The parish priest of Cedar River, Michigan, he was now stuck in Wisconsin, overseeing construction of St. Mary’s of Peshtigo a new church that he would also lead.
It was nearly complete, but now he needed to return to Cedar River. He cast a worried glance at the sky, which was growing thick and black with smoke from a nearby wildfire. He had been used to them in the growing logging community, but for some reason, this one seemed more ominous.
The smoke was so thick that the steamboat, already more than an hour behind schedule navigating through it, was unable to make port in Peshtigo. After another hour of waiting, Father Peter gave up and headed back to St. Mary’s.
Such is God’s will, he sighed, noting that he would at least be able to ride to the nearby town of Marinette to celebrate mass the following day. Still, as night fell, the smoke showed no sign of clearing.
Father Peter awoke the next morning to a chill. The October winds outside of his parish residence were howling, and he blinked in amazement at how dark the skies still were. The smoke was so thick and so blinding that his congregants begged him not to make the ride to Marinette. He was determined to say mass, however, relenting only when he realized that he could barely see a few yards ahead of him.
The fire must be moving closer to town; he could hear it crackling in the distance now. The smoke was almost suffocating. Father Peter retreated into the church, which was nearly completed. A sense of dread washed over him: Would this wildfire destroy everything he had helped build? His gaze fell on the bright white tabernacle, which contained the Eucharist—the very foundation of his church, and all churches.
He said a prayer and then got to work protecting the church’s valuables just in case the fire ever reached town. As evening fell, he dug as deep a trench as he could and placed as many books, church documents, and artifacts as he could fit inside.
A neighbor noticed his work as the black sky turned a foreboding shade of red.
“Father, do you think there is any danger?” she asked.
“I do not know,” he answered. “But I have unpleasant presentiments and feel myself impelled to prepare for trouble.”
If the fire did reach them, he warned, get to the river as quickly as possible. Over the next hour, the sky turned a brighter shade of red as the crackling sound grew into the roar of an approaching train. Then, within seconds, everything around Father Peter exploded in flames. The winds whipped the fire in every direction all at once. His only thought was not of his own survival, but of getting as many people as he could to the river and saving the Holy Eucharist from the flames.
He raced back to the church but could not find the key to the tabernacle. He didn’t have time, so he grabbed the entire thing and put it in his handcart and sprinted toward the river, screaming for others to follow him as he ran.
When he reached the bridge out of town, he helped dozens of others into the frigid water and instructed them to stay submerged and splash water over their heads to stay safe from the approaching flames. He took a look at his handcart and the beautiful white tabernacle inside it and realized the only chance he had to save it was to push it into the river. The tabernacle wouldn’t float, so he couldn’t push it all the way, but this, he figured, was the best he could do. He left the cart on the banks and waded into the river to await his fate.
For more than five hours, he and dozens of others tried their best to ward off the flames as a wall of fire consumed them. The heat was torturous, the light was blinding, and the air so thick that it was barely breathable. When morning came, the flames burned past the river, and Father Peter—temporarily blinded and barely able to walk, led his group of survivors to safety.
Over the next 24 hours, the fire raged uncontrollably and when it finally, mercifully cleared, the damage was incalculable. More than a million acres of forest burned to the ground and the town was reduced to ashes. More than 1,700 people lost their lives, making the Peshtigo Fire by far the deadliest in American history.
Days later, when Father Peter had recovered enough to help search for and minister to survivors and comfort the grieving, a parishioner ran up to him shouting “Father, do you know what has happened to your tabernacle?”
“No,” he answered, expecting that it was found either burned to ash or at the bottom of the river.
“Come quickly then and see,” the parishioner exclaimed. “Oh! Father, it is a great miracle!”
Father Peter saw his handcart blown on its side in the water, but the tabernacle was neither burned nor submerged. It was standing right side up floating on a log in the middle of the river.
“Everything in the vicinity of this spot had been blackened or charred by the flames,” Father Peter later wrote. “Logs, trunks, boxes, nothing had escaped, yet, strange to say, there rose the tabernacle, intact in its snowy whiteness, presenting a wonderful contrast to the grimy blackness of the surrounding objects.”
He left it in the water perched on its log, still perfectly white and—although made of wood—completely untouched by the flames. It really was, he thought, a miracle. As word spread of the disaster in Peshtigo and people flocked to the area to help survivors, hundreds gathered to see the floating tabernacle with the Eucharist still perfectly protected inside.
Father Peter spent the next few years rebuilding St. Mary’s Church, and when it was completed, placed the tabernacle back inside. It remains there to this day, a timeless reminder that the light of morning will shine even through the darkest night and that the power salvation is greater even than the flames of Hell.