by Joan Champ
Imagine you are fast asleep in your west end Prince Albert home on a frigid February evening when suddenly you are awakened by the wail of fire trucks and the brilliant glow of flames illuminating the night sky. You look out your window and are horrified to see crying children running barefoot through the snow as they flee their flaming home – St. Patrick’s Orphanage.
This is exactly what many witnessed on February 1, 1947. Although the mercury stood at 45 degrees below zero, residents along Thirteenth and Fifteenth Streets West rushed to the aid of 122 children and 18 staff members as they stumbled from the orphanage, many barefooted and clad only in their pyjamas. As the building roared in flames, citizens helped the children make the 300-yard-dash across the street to the warmth and safety of Holy Family Hospital. Not all escaped, however. Seven perished in the fire – six young girls and one of the sisters who cared for the children.
Newspaper accounts from the day are filled with dramatic descriptions of the disaster. One 64-year-old sister came struggling barefoot through the snow with five of the toddlers from the nursery. A child, aged six, was seen carrying a two-year-old toward the hospital. Sixteen tots ranging in age from one-and-a-half to six years were carried out, wrapped in blankets, by older girls and members of staff.
The fire started in the basement – probably in bins filled with 42 tons of freshly delivered coal, fuel for the orphanages five furnaces. At 2:00 in the morning, an intense column of flames shot upwards through the main floor, setting the whole three-storey structure on fire in a matter of moments. Witnesses say the flames leapt 25 feet in the air for almost 20 minutes as if fanned by a giant bellows.
“There was no panic, no shouting, no hysteria,” recalled Rev. L. C. Latour, principal of the orphanage, who had arrived two days before the fire to take over his new post. “Greatest order prevailed among the girls,” Father Latour continued, “for they had been drilled on previous occasions on what to do in the event of just such a contingency.”
Fire Chief J. Becotte reported that 16 firemen were on the scene two minutes after the alarm was received at 2:08 a.m. from the street box outside Holy Family hospital. By then, all the boys were out of their west-wing dormitory, and the girls were coming down the fire escapes of the east wing, many carrying babies and toddlers. The fire was “a losing battle all the way,” the Chief said. It took six hours to bring the fire under control, using 200,000 gallons of water through 2,300 feet of fire hose.
Sister Florena, Superior of the Orphanage, said the six little girls who perished in the fire must have instinctively gone down the front stairs as they always had, right into the worst of the blaze. The girls were soon identified. Loretta Godin, 8, along with her brother and sister, was placed in the orphanage by her father after the death of her mother four years earlier. Frances Chernysh, 7, had been in the orphanage for three years, together with her brother and sister. Their father was a CNR section foreman at Hudson Bay; their mother was dead. Adeline Wojichowski, 7, was in the orphanage with her sister. Their father, who worked in British Columbia, arrived in Prince Albert shortly after the fire. Margaret Rose Desormeaux, 7, had been brought to the orphanage by her father from Steep Creek just one week before the fire. Her younger brother and sister were led to safety from the burning building. Jeannette Paracy, 9, whose mother lived in Prince Albert, had a 7-year-old brother who was uninjured. Madeline Sahyes, 11, had been staying with her grandparents at Cumberland House before coming to the orphanage a year earlier.
Sister Albert Marie of the Charity of the Order of Immaculate Conception, formerly Alice Pilikowski of Prince Albert, also died in the fire. Sister Mary Bertrand later recalled that she and Sister Albert Marie were trapped in their room due to dense smoke outside the door. “We knelt down and renewed our vows, and as we knelt we felt the warm floor beneath us,” she said. Sister Bertrand went to escape out the window, but Sister Albert Marie told her that she couldn’t make it out that way. She perished as the burning floor gave way beneath her. Sister Bertrand slipped off the icy window ledge, falling three floors. City policeman Percy Hiltz covered her with his buffalo coat, which was later used as a stretcher to carry her to the hospital where she remained several months.
Funeral services for the seven fire victims were held March 1, 1947 in Sacred Heart Cathedral. All recovered remains were place in one coffin. Burial was in the Sisters’ plot in the old cemetery across from South Hill Cemetery. Sister Albert Marie’s name is inscribed on one side of the headstone, the names of the six children are on the reverse side.
One hero of the fire was the orphanage’s pet dog. Rover, who warned the boys sleeping in the dormitory on the floor above him. “We heard Rover barking,” exclaimed young Emile Laval from his hospital bed. “I ran out barefoot.” After the fire, Rover was brought to Holy Family Hospital and went from child to child before he would eat. Another nice note: after the fire, the Sisters, many of whom had frozen their feet, were given free shoes from Howard’s Shoe Store.
Thanks to the Bill Smiley Archives for its assistance in the preparation of this column.