Church of the Society of Jesus

Famous Fires In History – Church of the Society of Jesus Fire, Chile 1863

In the heart of Santiago, Chile, nestled amidst the bustling streets and lively markets, stood a symbol of faith and beauty. Church of the Society of Jesus. Its ornate architecture and grandeur drew worshippers and visitors alike, a beacon of spirituality in the growing city. However, on a fateful day, December 8th, 1863, tragedy struck, leaving a lasting mark on the city’s history.

The Church of the Society of Jesus Fire

The Church of the Society of Jesus was a Jesuit church located in downtown Santiago. The day of the fire was the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the most popular festivities of the religious calendar. The temple was adorned with a profusion of candles, oil lamps and wall coverings. In the main altar, a large statue of the Virgin Mary stood over a half-moon that in itself was a huge candelabra.

That night, the fire started a few minutes before 7 pm, when an oil lamp at the top of the main altar ignited some of the veils that adorned the walls. By a flaw in the design, the church of Compañía had doors that swung inward. A strong wind blew the doors open during the liturgy. This wind knocked a candle off the podium and disrupted the meeting of worshippers. The fire started by the burning candle roared through the church which resulted in the church’s destruction. More than 2500 people died in the fire. This makes it the 16th most deadly fire in history, according to NFPA statistics. However, this could be higher if the exact number of lives lost was known.

Somebody tried to put it out by smothering it with another cloth but managed only to make the fire jump over to the rest of the veils and from there on to the wooden roof. The mostly women attendees panicked and tried to escape. Still, the side doors had been closed to leave space to accommodate more people (they could be opened only inwards), leaving the main entrance as the primary escape route for most occupants in the church. Men were seated separately from women with an iron grating between them, and most of the men quickly escaped, many of them returning to the burning church to try to rescue those still trapped.

The priests retreated into the sacristy, and some of the men made their escape by following them. The priests were gathering together the church’s valuables to save them, and they closed the door to the sacristy so they could do this in peace. No one escaped through the sacristy after the door was closed. The priests then left the scene, all unharmed, with what valuables they were able to save from the blaze.

The main door became jammed with a pile of approximately 200 women and children, which made it impassable. Eventually, the side doors were also opened, but they also became jammed. Rescuers were able to pull about 50 people from these heaps, but no more.

Upon being notified of the tragedy, U.S. Envoy to Chile Thomas H. Nelson rushed to the scene and assisted in rescue operations. Several days after the fire, Nelson was recognized as a “true hero of Chile.”

The big hoop skirts worn at the time made escape very difficult if not impossible, causing the people at the front to fall and be trampled by the ones behind. Very soon the main entrance was blocked by a human wall of bodies, impeding both the exit of the ones trapped inside and the entry of rescuers. The main tower of the church was built of wood (while the rest of the church was solid masonry) and finally collapsed inwards around 10 pm, putting an end to the few remaining survivors.


Between 2,000 and 3,000 people perished in the fire, in a city that at the time had about 100,000 inhabitants. Entire families were wiped out. The cleanup of the bodies took about ten days, and since most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, they were placed in a mass grave at the Cementerio General de Santiago.

A Santiago newspaper printed the names of over 2,000 known victims. The same paper also printed a list of the objects saved by the priests and their value. This led to public outcry against the priests who had saved valuable objects but not people. Already under fire for designing a celebration mass with thousands of candles and oil lamps surrounded by flammable cloths and decorations, Ugarte and his colleagues drew more criticism when they later explained the deaths of so many women and girls as the Virgin Mary needing to take them without delay to her bosom.

Moving Forward

The remaining walls of the church were torn down, and a garden was planted in the place, with a statue placed at the site where the main altar used to be. A few years later, a second statue replaced the first. The garden and the statues still exist. The second statue is now part of the Ex Congreso Nacional gardens. The original statue is located at the main entrance of the Cementerio General de Santiago.

One of the contributing factors to the death toll was the lack of an organised fire brigade. This motivated José Luis Claro y Cruz to organise the first Volunteer Firemen’s Corps in Santiago. This service was set up on December 20 of the same year. Fire brigades in Chile, even today, are still made up only of unpaid volunteers. New fire regulations were also a result of this. The tragedy contributed to the partial secularisation of the Chilean government over the next two decades.

Sources – Church of the Society of Jesus, Chile 1863

Image 1 – The History Blog – link

NPFA statistics – 16th Most Deadly Fire – link

Wikipedia – Church of the Company Fire – link