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Fire at the Mother House in June 1893

Congrégation de Notre-Dame

For the third time since its establishment, the Congrégation de Notre-Dame experienced a fire at the main house on June 8, 1893.

Two workers had repaired the roof. The plumber and his assistant knocked over the furnace. An employee heard the conversation between the two men and wanted to check if the fire was fully extinguished. It was already too late: the destructive work had begun. It was a time of great distress. What could be done, so far from the city and all help? Unfortunately, the firefighters, sent for by telephone, went to the Mother House located on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Street. The delay was disastrous; the fire progressed.

Quickly estimating the distance that the firefighters had to cover and the difficulties that they would encounter to supply water to such a great height, Father Thibault, P.S.S., and the Mothers of the General Administration believed that the fire would not be contained and that it was necessary to save the sick and the furniture without delay. Missing fire blocks in the attic made it possible for the fire to spread to every part of the house simultaneously.

The sick sisters were brought to the parlours; among them was Mother Sainte-Ursule who had received Extreme Unction a few days earlier. They were taken to Villa-Maria. The Blessed Sacrament was also taken to the boarding school as all hope was lost. Despite their best intentions, the firefighters could not reach the fire site. Furthermore, one firefighter was knocked under a pile of burning debris. The fire spread to the neighbouring wings of the centre.

Fire was visible through the skylights of the house’s four wings. The steeple that looked as though plunged into a fiery blaze, quickly collapsed inward. During the general commotion, the ambulance transported the injured firefighter, Mr. A. Dufour of station No. 10. Father Canon Vaillant heard his confession and administered the Last Rites. He only survived for a few hours at Notre-Dame Hospital. The Community held a service at Notre-Dame-de-Pitié and promised his wife the financial help necessary to educate their children.

Seminarians took out the musical instruments. The novitiate library remained nearly whole thanks to the dedication of Sister Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rossi and a few other sisters. The Community’s four thousand volumes were saved by the clever thinking of Father Maréchal, the seminarians and several lay friends. From half past two to five, the wings of the chapel and of the Community, as well as the main section of the house created a massive blaze that was indescribable; it looked like a sea of fire.

The firefighters then directed their efforts toward the Church of Reparation since it was impossible to preserve the Mother House itself; missing fire blocks rendered their courageous acts useless. Soon, all that remained were the four walls of this sanctuary constructed at the cost of so many sacrifices. The majestic dome that crowned the church crumbled inward and the ground trembled under the terrible shock. The cemetery, so aptly called of Agony, was filled with smoking rubble, but the sisters’ mortal remains were preserved.

At Villa-Maria, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed throughout the night; several sisters remained in prayer until morning. The following day on June 9, Father Thibault celebrated Mass at half past five. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed once again. In the evening, before dismissal, bowed at the feet of He who is the Supreme Consoler, the distressed mother of the suffering Community read the following resolution:

I, Sister Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Superior General of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, together with my four assistant councillors and Sister Sainte-Agnès-de-Jésus, Depository General, in response to the terrible ordeal that we are facing with the fire at the Mother House on the Mountain, at Villa-Maria, promise to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the most Blessed Virgin, first and perpetual superior of our Congregation, to build as soon as divine Providence provides us with the means, a new mother house in keeping with the spirit of simplicity and poverty that our venerable Mother Foundress wished to leave to her Daughters as the most precious heritage, and as the distinct character of her Institute.

This resolution was signed in council, at the Villa-Maria boarding school, on June 9, 1893, Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the day after the terrible catastrophe that left the Community homeless.

(…)

Extract from: Sr. Thérèse Lambert CND (Sr. Sainte – Marie-Médiatrice), HISTORY OF THE CONGRÉGATION DE NOTRE-DAME OF MONTREAL, Volume X, Part I, 1969, pages 69 to 73.

 

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