100 Years Since … The Sisters of Charity Remember the Halifax Explosion 2017-12-05T20:20:17+00:00

As we mark 100 years since the Halifax Explosion on December 6, we look back at what our Sisters experienced during what was the largest human-made explosion prior to the detonation of the first atomic bombs in 1945.

Historical accounts tell us that two ships collided in Halifax harbour. One ship, the Mont Blanc, was loaded with ammunition for the First World War. The explosion that ensued from the collision wiped out the North End of Halifax. The original Motherhouse and Academy of the Sisters of Charity-Halifax was located where the present day Mount Saint Vincent University now stands, which is not far from the North End. What follows is a letter sent to all Sisters by Mother Mary Berchmans, Mother General of the Congregation at the time of the explosion.

SCHalifax Archives #178 Mother Mary Berchmans Walsh. Undated but pre-1921.

“My dear Sisters:

“The explosion, as you know, occurred at five minutes past 9:00 am … and the destruction which in one moment was done to life and property, and the suffering by injuries cannot, and probably will never be estimated.”

Mother Berchmans goes on to explain that some Sisters present at Mount Saint Vincent Motherhouse and Academy at the time of the explosion found glass in their clothing and in their shoes, but they were not hurt. “A few minutes after the explosion the Sisters were brushing up the broken glass and picking up debris. Some were on top of step-ladders nailing blankets and quilts to the open windows.”

The worst devastation happened in the North End of Halifax where St. Joseph’s School and Convent were located. According to the annals of St. Joseph’s Convent, “The attic and roof caved in on the 8th grade room pinning Sister Maria Cecilia to her platform … Many of the 8th grade girls made their escape through the windows of this room … Two dear little girls in Sister Rita’s room were killed instantly by the falling floor. Sister herself was temporarily blinded by the torrents of blood gushing from wounds she had received. She was in grave danger of losing both eyes.”

The annals continue, “The roof was blown off Sister Ethelred’s classroom and part of it was found on the next street … One child was killed … In Sister Agnes Gerald’s seventh grade … one of the girls lost her life … The Assembly Hall … was shattered.” Sister Edwina had been using The Assembly Hall as a temporary classroom and had thankfully kept her Grade 1 pupils in the basement somewhat longer than usual that morning; otherwise all would have been killed.

The Annalist describes the “scene of heartbreaking anguish — mothers and fathers looking for their children, children stunned and not knowing where to go as many of their homes had already been destroyed.”

What was left of St. Joseph’s Convent was destroyed by the blizzard that hit the city the following day.

Mother Berchmans continues in her letter, “At the Oxford Street School there was less injury. All the children left the School unharmed … At St. Patrick’s no loss of life has been reported. Our Convent there is very much damaged … Perhaps the least damaged of our Houses are St. Teresa’s Home and St. Mary’s … The Home of the Guardian Angel is badly injured … Seventy-two babies and Sisters are huddled together in one large room. The Orphanage suffers principally on account of broken glass.”

In the spirit of the Sisters of Charity – Halifax, groups of Sisters went every day to help in general relief work, and the Mount gave hospital care to a number of persons in distress. Several people remained at the Mount until late spring.

Mother Berchmans concludes her letter with a description of life at the damaged Motherhouse, “If you could see us when congregated for Mass … the Sisters wore their cloaks and wraps they had in their possession … woolen hoods are very much in fashion.” She also acknowledges the aid from Boston, “No words can sufficiently praise the prompt and effectual relief offered by the United States.”

Heritage Minute — The Halifax Explosion

Clip from mini-series “Shattered City”

In the clip at 2:50 of Shattered City, the Sister of Charity was most likely a teacher at St. Joseph’s School in the North End.  A number of first hand accounts of our sisters recount the story of two sisters at St. Joseph’s who were knocked unconscious at the time of the explosion, and although injured, were not killed.  “When they regained consciousness and found their way out of the ruined building, they attended to the injured children in the school yard.”

Sister Anna Gertrude Smith

Sister Anna Gertrude Smith in 1985 when she received an honorary degree from Mount Saint Vincent University: Doctor of Humane Letters.

The following is an account of the tragedy of one family, the Philip Smith family, as told by Sister Anna Gertrude Smith, former Head of the Math Department and registrar at Mount Saint Vincent College.

“Mamma, Phil and Anna were at home. Papa was at work in Woodside. Will had just begun his first year at Holy Heart Seminary. Gerald was attending Saint Mary’s College High School and Margaret and Gertrude were students at Saint Joseph School.

Now I shall describe my impressions. At 9:05 AM a terrific roar and piercing light, impossible to describe, ushered in the horrible devastation. Suddenly all was darkness as the floor of my second story eighth grade classroom gave way and we were buried amidst plaster and debris below the first floor level. Then self-preservation took over. After much shoving and pushing I finally saw a ray of light, and eventually arrived at what had been the front entrance.   … I saw Will coming down the street. Just then Margaret appeared from the other side of the building and we walked home. A man covered in blood was holding up a girl. Will said they were Phil and Anna. … Will asked Margaret and me to hold Anna up, who was unconscious, while he and Phil rescued Mamma who was pinned under the piano.   …Will put Mamma, Anna and Phil on a cart and we all went to a low place, the Bog, now the area where the Hydrostone homes are built. This area was thought to be safe.

At Saint Mary’s High School, Gerald was hit on the head by a window frame. By the time he was able to move, we had all disappeared and he and Papa arrived about the same time in front of our house which had already been burnt. The only thing remaining out on the street was the family Bible in which there was a picture of Irene (a sister who died 8 years previously) Papa put this in his pocket. Then they went to Holy Heart Seminary where they stayed overnight.

The next day they began to visit all the morgues in search of Anna. However, she had been taken to Camp Hill Hospital and was found by Sister Mary Berchmans Haverty, one of Anna’s teachers at the Mount Academy. Anna had lost her right eye and her face was almost completely covered in bandages… Sister took Anna’s hand and said, ‘If you are Anna Smith, press my hand.’ Sister got in touch with Father Will.   … Anna had serious internal injuries. She was taken to the operating room several times, but to no avail. The Sisters at the Mount prayed and she was cured.

Mamma was taken to Cogswell Street Army Hospital where she was found on Sunday. Phil was sent to a hospital in Antigonish. Before we left the Bog, I saw him lying on the ground quivering from head to foot from the severing of nerves and loss of blood.

Margaret and I were taken to the Salvation Army Hospital. That night a very heavy snowstorm occurred…”

On December 7, 1917, the Ottawa Evening Journal stated: “Following the wake of death and destruction in Halifax, a heavy snowstorm set in early this morning, adding to the discomfort of the homeless, and impeding the work of the rescuers. “

Sister goes on to say that little by little, the wounded family members began to heal, and finally their mother and Margaret joined them in September – nine months after the explosion. The re-united family began to build a life together.

The Halifax Infirmary

“In December – The Halifax Explosion. A disaster team, American Red Cross, came from Rhode Island and made its headquarters at the Infirmary. We owned and operated the Halifax Infirmary at this time.” From The Halifax Infirmary – A Brief Summary of Its History 1886 – 1960

St. Joseph’s Convent and School

The worst devastation happened in the North End of Halifax where St. Joseph’s School and Convent were located. According to the annals of St. Joseph’s Convent, “The attic and roof caved in on the 8th grade room pinning Sister Maria Cecilia to her platform … Two dear little girls in Sister Rita’s room were killed instantly by the falling floor. The roof was blown off Sister Ethelred’s classroom and part of it was found on the next street … One child was killed … In Sister Agnes Gerald’s seventh grade … one of the girls lost her life … The Assembly Hall  … was shattered. The Annalist describes the “scene of heartbreaking anguish — mothers and fathers looking for their children, children stunned and not knowing where to go as many of their homes had already been destroyed.”

What was left of St. Joseph’s Convent was destroyed by the blizzard that hit the city the following day.

Sister Francis d’Assisi McCarthy

Sister Francis d’Assisi, president of Mount Saint Vincent College from 1954-1965, was a novice during the Halifax Explosion in 1917 and recalls that is was five minutes after nine, “certainly in Mount time it was five minutes after”.  “…we were all assigned with volunteers to go do the things that needed to be done … the first need was to sweep up glass; the second was to tack up windows (every window in the House) the tar paper which Sister Maria Joseph (who had gone to town, walking most of the way) … I remember meeting Sister Catherine in a carpenter’s apron with pockets in it, the pockets full of all sorts of things, a hammer in hand, and tar paper already cut to go onto the windows.”

Home of Guardian Angel

On December 6, 1917, Sister Mary Eucharia Franklin was feeding the children at the Home of the Guardian Angel when Imo and the Mont Blanc collided in the harbour, causing a huge explosion. The Home’s fire escape door was ripped off its hinges and a baby died when a heavy water tank fell. It was the mayor, Johnny Murphy, who came to lift the tank off the little body. Cribs were covered with glass and splinters. Fearing another explosion, the Sisters carried the babies over to the Commons. Remarkably, none of the babies caught cold.
Later they returned to find water and heat cut off. Neighbours rallied to help. Over time the roof and other parts were repaired. An outstanding improvement was replacing straw ticks with real mattresses on all the cribs and beds. In those days usually six or seven unmarried mothers lived in and stayed on to breastfeed and help out with work.
Sister Eucharia said that the beautiful unity that existed among the Sisters is what she remembered most from her six years at the Home.

Mount Saint Vincent Academy

A Boston girl, identified as Katherine H. White, attending a school at Rockingham [Mount Saint Vincent Academy] on the outskirts of Halifax said: “The school building shook like a leaf. Every window crumbled. Then came the awful screaming. Men came to us and asked for God’s sake to give them cloth for bandages. We tore up sheets and gave it to them. By that time loads of dying and injured were being brought to us in wagons.” From the Boston Herald 1917.

Sister Julia Teresa Lenane

“For months, we could see from our Community Room windows the “Belgian Relief” ship which was blown up on the shore on the Dartmouth side. On the side of the vessel “Belgian Relief” was painted in black letters on a white background. This boat and the ammunition vessel collided in the fog at the Narrows, and caused the explosion that made many people homeless, blind and orphaned. Some bodies were never found.”

Rebuilding after the Halifax Explosion

At the time of the Halifax Explosion, Mount Saint Vincent Motherhouse (1873 – 1951) sustained some structural damage but “every window was broken, some of them old and of stained glass of great value”. When one particular pane of glass exploded, the crystal inserts were saved.  It has been said that this was in the library area of Mount Saint Vincent Academy.

At the request of Sister Maria Joseph Johnson, superintendent of the Motherhouse farms, Mr. Bayer, engineer for the Motherhouse, created the “Bethlehem Star” and was placed each year above the outdoor Christmas Crib on the grounds at the Old Mount. (destroyed by fire in 1951)   One question remains:  Where was this star at the time of the Mount Fire when everything was lost?

Laying of St. Joseph’s Convent cornerstone, 1919

St. Joseph’s Convent bell, c1928

This picture of the Ave Maria Memorial Bell was taken in 1928 when it was dedicated and blessed by Rev. C.E. McManus, beloved and devoted pastor of Saint Joseph’s Parish before and after the Halifax Explosion.

Life at the Mount in the hours and days following the Halifax Explosion

Works cited

All images and materials, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Sisters of Charity – Halifax Congregational Archives.

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