Friday 8 December 2017

The Hand of God Has Been Laid Heavily Upon Us: 100 Years Since the Halifax Explosion

100 years ago this week, Halifax was devastated after a collision in the harbour sparked a fire aboard a munitions ship. The resulting blast was the most powerful explosion in history before the Second World War. Approximately 2,000 were killed, 9,000 were injured, and 1,249 buildings were destroyed. Windows were shattered up to 100 kilometres away.

In the following weeks, Archbishop McNeil (who was originally from Cape Breton) received letters describing the destruction. Archbishop Edward McCarthy of the Archdiocese of Halifax sent the following after receiving a $2000 donation from the Archdiocese of Toronto:

Letter from Halifax Archbishop Edward McCarthy to Archbishop McNeil describing the devastation of the blast.

14 December 1917

MN TA01.20
Archbishop McNeil Fonds

"Halifax, Dec. 14th 1917

"His Grace - The archbishop of Toronto

"My dear Lord Archbishop,

"How shall we ever thank you sufficiently for your kind words of sympathy, and still kinder deed in sending us $2000 for the relief of the sufferers in St. Joseph's parish? They were both sorely needed. No one can have any idea of the extent of the calamity or of the gruesomeness of the sights but those who were eyewitness of the scene. I shall never forget it as long as I live. It simply baffles description. St. Joseph's parish is almost wiped out. Church, presbytery, Convent, two parish halls and schools, all destroyed beyond repair. St. Patrick's Church, with its beautiful Munich windows, is badly damaged. The whole roof will have to come down. In the Cathedral there is not a pane of glass left, and the worst of it all is, we can claim no insurance. Every Catholic Institution - the orphanage, seminary, Home of the Good Shepherd, Infants' Home, St. Teresa's Home for servant-girls out of employment, Sacred Heart Convent, Infirmary, all have been badly riddled though not beyond repair. Certainly for some strange purpose, which we cannot understand, the hand of God has been laid heavily upon us. About 6000 houses, they think, have been either leveled to the ground, or impossible of repair. This, of course, means that 20,000 people are left homeless, and that we will have to clothe, house and feed them for the winter. The number of dead is estimated at 2000, and the wounded are nearly 3000. We beg your Grace to be good enough to convey to the good people of your Archdiocese our hearty thanks for the very substantial and generous help they have sent. May God reward you and them a thousand fold for it all.

I am, Your Grace, Most gratefully yours in Xto.
+Edward McCarthy"

Archbishop McNeil's uncle wrote to him from Halifax on January 6, 1918:

"My Dear Nephew,

"My first word is to wish your people and diocese, your clergy and yourself a very happy New Year in the best sense of the term. We are in a mess yet in this city. I drove through the ruined district today and am convinced I understated the situation in my letters to you and Mary. How any escaped from the destroyed and wrecked houses it is difficult to explain from any human point of view. It is known that in some instances parties living in flat roofed two storey houses made their way to safety through breaks in the upper floor and the roof which was down so near the ground that they were able to step from the roof on to the adjoining street. All school houses suffered severely, and several have been condemned - others are so much damaged that the restoration will cost almost as much as rebuilding. Several churches are beyond repair too...

"The chair I sat in when the explosion occurred was cut by glass an inch long and nearly a quarter deep and that across the grain too, right back of where my head was. Mrs. M is well otherwise than in her eyesight which has grown so dim she cannot come down stairs without help and guidance. About the end of the month she will be surgically healed and we are all hopeful of best results - though at her age success does not always follow.

"Annie's sister ... is recovering the last few days nicely but will feel the loss of her eye and the cuts on her nose and brow keenly. Her son Dick has no doubt a sightless eye - besides a loss of over $3000 in property. His elder brother is laid up from a blow received in the explosion which he did not feel at first and Dick's 9 year old boy had an eye removed. The incidents make us more thankful for the protection God accorded us." (MN AA03.37A Archbishop McNeil Fonds)

It is difficult to imagine what Haligonians went through that day and in the months that followed, but many institutions have produced resources to help us remember them. For more information, check out the website of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth dedicated to remembering the explosion. The Nova Scotia Archives has many online resources available, and CBC has an interactive website telling the story of the accident.

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