WALLACE, Idaho — A century-old story of faith and miracles has captivated Mike Feiler, sending him on a quest to find a lost statue of Jesus.
The story comes from the 1910 forest fires, which consumed a third of the mining town of Wallace. When flames threatened Providence Hospital, a Catholic institution on the north side of town, the mother superior fell to her knees, pleading with God to spare it.
Sister Anthony promised to erect a statue of Jesus if her prayers were answered. Shortly afterward, the wind shifted. The hospital was saved, and its deliverance became known as "the Miracle of the Coeur d'Alenes."
Sister Anthony kept her promise after the fire. A life-size statue of Jesus was purchased for the hospital grounds.
The story touched Feiler, who first heard it several years ago.
"It's always hard to say that something is a miracle, but it's incredible that all those things happened at the same time," said Feiler, a former Coeur d'Alene Press editor who now lives in Wallace. "The fire got so close to the building that the paint was bubbling. Then the winds changed and the fire went back up the canyon."
Feiler wanted to restore the statue for a community project. But it had disappeared.
He's spent the last several years trying to unravel the mystery of the missing statue. He's searched old documents for clues to its whereabouts, queried local churches and quizzed Wallace's older residents.
The last documented reference he could find was a 1956 article from the Wallace Press-Times, describing the statue's donation to the Wallace District Mining Museum after the hospital's closure. A picture of the statue shows Jesus with uplifted arms and flowing robes. The statue's left hand is missing.
The museum has a receipt acknowledging the donation, but no Jesus statue among its artifacts, said Jim McReynolds, the museum's executive director.
Last year was the 100th anniversary of the 1910 fires, which claimed at least 85 lives and burned 3 million acres in Idaho, Washington and Montana during a two-day firestorm. Museum officials put out the word that the statue was missing and they wanted it back.
"It's a significant artifact because it ties into one of those very important stories in our heritage," McReynolds said. "We've had rumors of possible sightings, but nothing that's ever panned out."
Feiler chased several leads. The Old Mission State Park has two smaller statues from Providence Hospital, but not the one associated with the fire. He also contacted the Sisters of Providence's Seattle office, hoping their archives might have more information on the statue. That was a dead end, too.
Feiler is still hopeful that the statue will be discovered in someone's attic or in a dusty church basement.
"My biggest fear is that it got melted down," he said. "If it was a high quality statue, it may have been bronze."
The statue is a physical link to the wildfires that terrorized Wallace on the night of Aug. 20, 1910. Actions taken by the Providence Hospital staff reflected "real courage and heroism and self-sacrifice," McReynolds said. "We all wish we would act so well during dire times."
Sister Anthony was visiting St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula when she received a frantic phone call from her staff. A roaring wind had swept through the mountains, whipping smaller wildfires into an inferno. The hospital was in its path. The Catholic sisters were preparing to evacuate the patients by rail and abandon the building. It was the last phone call the nuns made before the electricity was cut off.
As the patients were loaded onto the train, a bridge below the hospital caught fire. The priest rode in the coal tender, clutching the Communion elements. While Sister Anthony prayed in Missoula, the Northern Pacific conductor navigated the train over deep mountain gorges on flammable wooden trestles.
Sister Joseph Antioch, a 21-year-old novice, had boarded the train, but got off when she remembered that three indigent patients were asleep in the hospital's basement. The train left without her.
Forty years later, she recounted her tale to a Spokesman-Review correspondent. The patients she had awakened fled. Sister Joseph Antioch was the only woman left at the site. The doctor and another patient were on the roof with hoses, wetting down the building.
She watched a foundry near the hospital explode into flame and started to cry.
"The heat was like a furnace, and the smoke swirled in great clouds. I was all alone," she later recalled. "I sat down on the front steps to weep and pray and wait for death."
About 9 p.m., Sister Anthony promised to erect the statue. "At about that time, a gardener on the hospital grounds came and told me that we were safe. That the wind had changed," Sister Joseph Antioch said.
The evacuation train reached St. Regis, Mont., where the passengers caught another train to Missoula the next morning. At about 9 p.m. on the prior evening, the passengers said they had crossed a burning trestle.
It collapsed after the last rail car was safely across.
Wallace was in shambles the next day, but even the hay in the hospital's cow-barn had escaped the fire. When the smoky air cleared, city residents could look up at the hill and see that Providence Hospital was still standing.
The old hospital building was later torn down. A grassy area, now private property, marks the spot where the building stood.
From both a faith and a history perspective, Providence Hospital's deliverance from the fire is an amazing tale, said Feiler, who thinks resurrecting the statue would help keep the narrative alive.
"For people who hear this story, it would be a touch point," he said, "and a link to the story of the 1910 fires."