St. Paul's Remembers 30-Year Anniversary of School Fire

St. Paul's Remembers 30-Year Anniversary of School Fire

St. Paul’s remembers the 30-year anniversary of a fire that destroyed our school but showed the resilience of this community. Read below for a look back at that challenging but rewarding time in our school history.

Click here to watch various news footage and interviews with students and school/church administrators in 1992. Many thanks to our former St. Paul's art teacher for 35 years, Shirley Laird, for piecing all the footage together!


The Rev. Paul Twelves, who had been interim rector of St. Paul’s Church for less than four months, was notified around midnight on Saturday, November 21, 1992. The Day School was burning down. He dressed and headed toward the school from his home on Roanoke Parkway on the Plaza.

“I could see flames in the sky,” he said. “When I arrived, the head of school, Larry L’Heureux, was on the scene and it was in full blaze with fire equipment all over the place.”

The following account appeared on Monday, November 23, in The Kansas City Star:

The first call on the blaze went out to firefighters at about 1 a.m. In the next two hours, 14 pumper companies, six hook-and-ladder trucks and two squads of firefighters were sent to the four-alarm fire. The first fire crews to arrive had to snake their way through Main Street traffic, which had been brought to a standstill by blinding smoke…

By 2 a.m. flames were leaping 30 feet from the rooftop. Firefighters perched atop six ladder trucks swayed in a stiff, cold wind. The smoke could be seen from a mile away, even against the starless, cloudy night sky.

Fire crews battled rain and gusts. At least two pumpers dispatched to the scene did nothing but cruise the vicinity to extinguish flying embers that landed on other properties…

Red Cross volunteers poured more than 16 pots of coffee for the firefighters…

Area residents also gathered in the drizzle.

“It’s sad. My little brother goes to that school,” said Pat Randolph, 24, who lives nearby. “It was a symbol of stability for this neighborhood to have a school – and not just any school but a good school.”

Students and the parents hugged and cried in the rain outside the smoldering ruins. Firefighters used 200,000 gallons of water to fight the blaze. Teachers – some of whom had spent their entire 40-plus year careers at St. Paul’s and lost irreplaceable materials – experienced their own special grief.

“At 4 p.m., the fire chief came and sat down with us to tell us that the fire was finally out," Mrs. Mary Jo Powell said. “It was then that this interim rector, asked the fire chief, ‘Can you say what caused this fire?’ And the fire chief said, ‘No, we absolutely cannot determine what caused this.’ There was no one to be blamed.”

Three days of school remained before the Thanksgiving holiday. The administration decided to suspend 3rd through 8th grade and extended day programs for the week, with hopes to resume class the following Monday. Preschool through 2nd grade would continue to meet as usual in the church.

Offers of classroom space started to come in on Sunday following the fire. The church received a phone call from Rabbi Michael Zedek of Temple B’nai Jehudah, at that time a 122-year-old Jewish congregation at 69th and Holmes streets.

The temple, which four years earlier had housed the Marlborough School for a year, had 12 classrooms, assembly space, and offices furnished with desks and chairs available immediately. Rabbi Zedek said the facility would be available to the school “for as long as is necessary.”

Everyone – from students, parents and teachers to administrators, clergy, and support staff – learned a lot about adapting to circumstances during the year-and-a-half St. Paul’s held classes at Temple B’nai Jehudah.

“As 7th graders, we were a little shocked that our school burned down and we only missed Monday and Tuesday after Thanksgiving,” former student Andrew Funk said.

Residency at the Temple presented many challenges, but also provided a unique opportunity for interfaith dialogue and the blessings that can flow from that. Upon entering the building for the first time, St. Paul’s students were welcomed by Rabbi Zedek, Cantor Paul Silbersher, and Mr. Joe Boston, Temple administrator, who, throughout the year-and-a-half, played a major role in making sure that everyone’s needs were met.

Faculty, students, and families associated with most schools – public or private - come and go. Once gone, they tend to care or remember little about their experiences or the people to whom they were once close. Not so with St. Paul’s. The leaders of the rebuilding campaign didn’t give their time and treasure for personal recognition or to benefit their own children. Indeed, most of their children had graduated or would within a year or two. “Everyone said, ‘The fire was a blessing in disguise,’” Mr. Steve Palmer said.

Everyone involved recognized the importance of St. Paul’s Episcopal Day School to the community and wanted to be part of preserving it. Fueling their passion was dedication to an institution that not only provided students with the best possible secular education, but also helped them to recognize their privilege and embrace the opportunity to serve. Where better to absorb such lessons than at a school connected to a church from which students can look out a window and see hungry people lining up at the food pantry and real life unfolding on the streets around them.

The new school facility was dedicated on September 18, 1994. Now for the first time since 1978, lower and middle school students occupied the same building. Reflecting on his and his wife Dody’s involvement in the rebuilding campaign, Mr. Lathrop Gates said, “When St. Paul’s celebrates various anniversaries, the fire and school rebuilding will likely be remembered. It’s behind us – a glorious yet challenging future lies ahead. Let us all commit to the preservation and growth of St. Paul’s - so that it will continue to be the Kansas City paradigm for worship and education.”

Pictures of the damage following a fire at St. Paul's Day School on November 21, 1992.