When Disaster Struck Halifax: The Church Rallied

Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ont., and a history columnist for Faith Today magazine. This week on the Faith Today blog we feature some of our favourite Flatt columns.Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 10.29.00 AM

Just before 9:05 a.m. on the morning of December 6, 1917, the largest man-made explosion up to that point in history tore through Halifax. The Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship packed with explosives, caught fire after a collision in the harbour and ran aground at Pier 6. Within minutes, 2.5 km2 of the city had been flattened by the blast and the ensuing tsunami. Part of the Mont-Blanc’s anchor, weighing 450 kg, was thrown through the air and landed over 3 km away.

The tragedy was the result of a series of mistakes and miscommunications between the Mont-Blanc, entering the harbour, and a departing Norwegian ship, the Imo.

Halifax was a busy wartime port. The safe passage of ships into and out of the harbour was governed by careful protocols, but somehow the Imo collided with the Mont-Blanc causing the fire that triggered the catastrophic explosion. Final responsibility for the collision was hotly disputed for years in the courts, though it seems both ships made serious errors in navigational judgment.

The consequences were severe. More than 1,600 people were killed in the initial explosion, with the total death toll eventually reaching closer to 2,000. Another 9,000 or so were injured, many seriously. The explosion rendered 6,000 Haligonians homeless and left another 25,000 – about half the city’s population – without proper shelter.

An enormous relief effort ensued. Firefighters, together with nearby survivors including railway workers, were among the first to help. Troops stationed in the city were initially sent to defensive positions due to confusion about the source of the explosion – many feared a German attack – but as the true cause of the disaster became clear, they soon contributed to the work. British and American naval vessels, some of which had heard the blast from sea, arrived within hours.

Train dispatcher Vince Coleman consciously forfeited his chance to escape danger by staying behind to warn approaching trains to stay out of the city.

Over the following days, the need for shelter, medical personnel and supplies became pressing.

These needs were largely met by help from surrounding communities, which sent trains loaded with supplies and personnel to set up emergency shelters and makeshift hospitals. The people of Boston and the state of Massachusetts distinguished themselves by sending a relief train under the leadership of A.C. “Cap” Ratshesky of the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee. This train braved a snowstorm and other obstacles before arriving with invaluable support for the exhausted doctors, nurses and other workers labouring in the rubble.

The churches in the affected area were hard hit. Kaye Street Methodist lost 167 people; Grove Presbyterian, 170; St. Mark’s Anglican, 200; and worst of all, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and the attached school lost 494 parishioners and students. In the following days and hours the surviving clergy of the city were stretched to the limit comforting the dying and performing funerals. Churches such as Grafton Methodist were involved in sheltering the wounded and homeless from the winter snows and serving them hot bowls of soup.

Many of the dead could not be identified or went unclaimed, necessitating a large multidenominational funeral service for them on December 17. More accurately, there were two services – a Protestant one led by ministers from the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Salvation Army churches, immediately followed by a Catholic service. Whatever their denomination, the 3,000 mourners in attendance were united in their grief and prayers as they sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Abide With Me.”

Many of the responses to the disaster serve as examples of the self-sacrificial love to which we aspire as Christians. Writer Laura MacDonald, for example, recounts a story of nuns, who despite being covered in blood and no doubt in a state of shock themselves, were directing terrified schoolchildren to safety. In a more well-known example (commemorated in a short “Heritage Minute” film), train dispatcher Vince Coleman consciously forfeited his chance to escape danger by staying behind to warn approaching trains to stay out of the city. His last message, typed out in Morse code, concluded, “Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

Where was God in the Halifax disaster? In the heroism of people like Coleman, and in the less dramatic but nevertheless important contributions made by those nuns, “Cap” Ratshesky and others, we catch a glimpse of the kind of response He looks for from us.

Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ont. Find more of these columns at www.faithtoday.ca/HistoryLesson.


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