St. Joseph's suffered the most damage among Catholic churches in the Halifax Explosion. Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives

The day Halifax exploded

  • December 6, 2017
HALIFAX, N.S. – The tall, grey and weathered headstone in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery is carved with 11 names, all from the same family and with the simple statement at the bottom: “They died Dec. 6, 1917 at 66 Veith St.”

One hundred years later, the tombstone in west-end Halifax is a stark reminder of the catastrophic Halifax Explosion that killed 2,000 and injured 9,000 more.

Under the name of the family’s father, Joseph D. Hinch, 50, is the list of his 10 children and their ages, from 19 to two — Clara, Helena, Thomas, Mary, Joseph, James, Annie, Margaret, Ralph and Helen.

All were caught in the destructive force of the blast that ripped through Halifax just after 9 a.m. Two ships collided in the harbour and the explosion that followed impacted a 130-hectare area, flattening or damaging hundreds of north-end buildings that included the Catholic church the Hinch family attended, St. Joseph’s, at the corner of Gottingen and Russell Streets, just west of the harbour.

“Every single church in the area was damaged, all the way out to Windsor Junction (25 kilometres from downtown Halifax),” said Blair Beed, a local historian and author of a book on the explosion.

“Four churches were destroyed,” said Beed. “The Methodist, the Presbyterian, the Anglican and the Catholic churches in that neighbourhood. Every other church, Catholic and non-Catholic, and the synagogues downtown were damaged in some way. Some of them were so damaged, like St. John’s Presbyterian on Brunswick, it was torn down and they moved to another location to rebuild.”

The explosion was ignited after the French ship Mont Blanc, carrying 2,500 tons of high explosives and a deck-load of monochlorobenzene, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian vessel, in what is known as the narrows, a strait that connects the Halifax harbour to Bedford Basin. The blast took its greatest toll in the Richmond district of Halifax, where St. Joseph’s was located.

“Fifty per cent of Halifax was Roman Catholic,” Beed said. “Fifty per cent, like it is now, but they don’t go to church now.”

Halifax and the city of Dartmouth, across the harbour, had a combined population of about 65,000 at the time. About 1,500 of those were parishioners at St. Joseph’s. More than a quarter of them died that Thursday morning.

“Four hundred and four people of that congregation were killed,” Beed said. “They lived and worked there. Back in those days, transportation was tough so you lived where you worked.

“There were a lot of big families there.”

halifax explosion 100 catholic church yellow stakesThe Hinch gravesite, a pronounced example of the carnage reaped by the blast, has a bright yellow stake nearby. There are nearly 400 yellow stakes at Mount Olivet and the Holy Cross cemetery, a Catholic graveyard in the downtown area. The yellow stakesgraveyard in the downtown area. The yellow stakes were authorized by the city’s Catholic Cemeteries Commission, painted and put in place by a summer student in advance of the 100th anniversary of the explosion. Each stake represents a Catholic killed in the blast.

“It is to commemorate the loss of so many people in the explosion,” said Joe McSweeney, a retired teacher who has an affinity for history. “The whole story of the Halifax Explosion could be attached to graves and gravesites at Mount Olivet Cemetery,” McSweeney said.

Aside from the Hinch family stone, McSweeney said there are more than 330 Catholic victims of the explosion buried at Mount Olivet. One of those is the gravesite of Vince Coleman, the train dispatcher immortalized for his bravery in staying at his post to warn an incoming train of the pending danger. Coleman died in the explosion as did his office manager, William Lovett, and his stenographer, Florence Young. They, too, are buried at Mount Olivet.

McSweeney said 10 firemen answered the call to tackle the fire on the Mont Blanc, before the fire turned into an explosion. All 10 were Catholic, nine were killed and eight bodies recovered. The one firefighter who survived was William (Billy) Wells, who was thrown from the driver’s seat of the firetruck.

Explosion victims are interred at cemeteries across Nova Scotia, and even beyond.

“There were 50 different cemeteries across Nova Scotia that bodies were sent to,” Beed said. “It was wartime so a lot of people in the city were from the rural area working in the war industries and when they died, they simply were sent back to their home community to be buried in the family plot.

“One Catholic soldier was sent home to Levis, Quebec. It really was a national event.”

Beed compares the 2016 Fort McMurray fire in northern Alberta and its aftermath to the Halifax Explosion in terms of the numbers of people forced from homes and left jobless.

“They only had two people die in Fort McMurray as the result of a car crash but in terms of families being scattered, Fort McMurray would be a good example. People haven’t gone back to Fort McMurray. My nephew and his wife and daughter are here in Halifax because the people he worked for, it burned down. He came home to mummy and ended up finding a job here. His extended family in Fort McMurray is everywhere else in Canada. What are you going home to when it is burned to the ground? So, that was pretty much like the Halifax Explosion. People spread out, finding help elsewhere.”

And when people left and money dried up in the shattered city of Halifax, it was difficult to rebuild churches.

“They held services in a house on Fuller Terrace,” Beed said of St. Joseph’s pastor, a Fr. McManus. “The priest did set up right away in someone’s dining room on their buffet. The buffet became the high altar. They just jammed them in, whoever wanted to show up. But a lot of people didn’t live in the area anymore because they had to go to the temporary housing on the Garrison Grounds at Citadel Hill. They would have gone to (Mass) at (St. Mary’s) Basilica. From the Commons temporary housing, they would have gone up to Holy Heart Seminary on Quinpool Road.”

The community of the north end soon built the Tar Paper Church to be used by the four parishes that were destroyed until they could re-establish. Later, the Halifax Relief Commission would provide funding for all the churches for the damages incurred in the explosion.

“They (commission) received requests, they appraised the requests and then they made a reward to each church,” Beed said. St. Joseph’s received about $60,000 and another $10,000 or so for the rectory, Beed said.

“That’s why the rectory at St. Joseph’s was a grand house. It had nine bedrooms. They built the rectory first before they built the top of the church. They (parish) stayed in the basement for 30 years until they could build the top.

The basement church was the size of the destroyed building, with a flat roof.

“It was the footprint of the church above. It was huge. When they divided it up, they had one room as a kids’ playroom and they could play basketball in that room. What stopped them from building was the Depression after the war. First there was the influenza, then the Great Depression. They didn’t build and then World War II, they were too busy to build. Finally, after the war, the baby boomers built their church.”

The buffet-turned altar can now be found in a Halifax Explosion room at the Naval Museum of Halifax on Gottingen Street. The buffet is adorned with crucifixes and rosary beads found on explosion victims.

St. Joseph’s Church, meanwhile, was closed in June 2006 because of the declining number of parishioners. It was demolished in 2009.

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