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.”