St. Boniface Cathedral fire — 40 years ago basilica reduced to a charred shell

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

Forty years ago, thousands of people watched in horror as flames consumed a beloved St. Boniface landmark.

“For me it’s my whole life,” a 70-year-old Sister of the Order of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary told Winnipeg Free Press reporter Michelle Veilleux. 

“I was baptised in the previous church that was demolished to build this one, but I made my first communion in the basilica.

“My father and mother’s funeral ceremonies were held here and they were buried in the shadow of the cathedral.

“Our family pew was just opposite that door ... it’s as if it was my own house that was burning.”

On July 22, 1968, the St. Boniface Cathedral built 60 years earlier succumbed to the fire, leaving just a shell to represent its former grandeur.

As the flames consumed the basilica, one fireman was seen kneeling as if in prayer. Another distressed woman, watching as the fire took its toll, said she had been scheduled to be married in just three weeks in the cathedral. Arthur Lemay, 79, told Veilleux his 10 children had been baptised in the cathedral and seven of these children had been married there.

St. Boniface Fire Chief Emery Proulx told Free Press reported Ron Campbell that his men felt hapless in their desperate attempt to keep the fire at bay.

“Once the fire in St. Boniface Basilica started (at noon),” he said, “nothing could have been done to stop it from gutting the whole structure.

“If you go back into the history of fires in these churches, once a fire starts in them, they are usually destroyed.”

The fire chief explained that the open space of the basilica allowed the fire to spread rapidly.

“It was so vast in there, there was no way to stop it.”

Chief Proulx said a volume of smoke had collected in the confined space, resulting in a “heat explosion,” causing the fire to quickly expand outward. He believed the fire had taken time to build up before erupting throughout the structure.

It was reported that four painters and a tinsmith had been working on the basilica’s roof just before the fire became visible. It was reported the fresh paint on the roof boiled as a result of the intense fire. After most of the building had been gutted, the cathedral’s twin spires toppled inward.

After the fire, church historian Father Antonio Champagne, sadly remarked, “The cathedral was part of Western Canada history.”

Although it was reported two of the painters had been smoking while working on the roof, a fire commissioners’ report indicated they were not responsible for the blaze.

“From the evidence received no blame is attached to anyone for the fire and as far as this department is concerned the matter is closed,” said Fire Commissioner Auguste Thorimbert.

What remained was to rebuild the cathedral, estimated as valued between $2 million and $2.5 million and not fully covered by insurance. To help with the cost of reconstruction, the eight insurance companies, which had insured the structure for $1 million (adjusting for inflation, approximately $6 million today — all subsequent bracketed dollar vlaues are adjusted for inflation), quickly waved the red tape in areas such as proof of loss and presented cheques totaling $750,000 to the archdiocese. In the end, the companies settled the claim for $940,000, according to the Free Press.

“The new cathedral will be built according to the pastoral needs of 1968, bearing in mind the state of the remains of the old cathedral, its historical situation, and the financial situation,” said Justice A.M. Monnin of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, who was the chairman of the rebuilding committee.

During the subsequent public meetings, the “big issue” was, “Should the parish rebuild in the memory of yesterday or for the needs of tomorrow — or could it get away with both.”

In the end, it was decided they could get away with both — a new cathedral would be built while retaining the shell of the old cathedral that still stood after the fire. The present cathedral was blessed by Archbishop Baudoux in 1972. Manitoba architect Étienne Gaboury incorporated the sacristy, façade and walls of the former basilica in his design for the new structure. Within the façade are found the tombs of the bishops of St. Boniface, including bishops Provencher, Taché, Langevin and Beliveau.

When the cornerstone of the old  cathedral was laid in 1906, it was timed to coincide with a civic holiday, and “promises to eclipse any public demonstration ever held in that town in the past,” according to the August 15, 1906, Morning Telegram.

Following the dedication, the same newspaper reported: “A day notable in the history of St. Boniface was concluded last night ... The cornerstone of the great cathedral was laid, amid impressive surroundings, and in the presence of many distinguished prelates and people. It was the climax of a series of ceremonies each of special significance and equally brilliant ...

“Old St. Boniface was en fete for the occasion and flags and banners were everywhere in evidence. The populace of the city was swelled by thousands from Winnipeg and elsewhere.”

The newspaper estimated that 6,000 people listened to a sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Ottawa, Joseph-Thomas Duhamel. He said the new cathedral would be a monument without equal in Canada.

The cornerstone was blessed by Archbishop Louis-Philippe-Aldélard Langevin. 

The official ceremony ended in “a brilliant display of fireworks near the centre of town and a parade by the town fire brigade.

The new cathedral, designed by the Montreal architectural firm of Marchand and Haskell, was described by the Canadian Architect and Builder as “well worth attentive scrutiny, both for the interesting work out of the style in detail, and, especially for the dignity, and nobility of the total result. The front — especially the entrance with its expanse of steps and the great seated angels at each end — has the true Catholic feeling, of the church of which the visible existence in the world is a real part of the order of things.”

The cathedral was designed to look “across the prairies to the promising west, while its shadows fall upon the resting places of the pioneers, who made these things possible. The great front presents a face of buff stone that measures a hundred feet square; broad and high. Rising 150 feet (47.72 metres) heavenward from either corner, the noble towers crown with just simplicity the ornate façade.”

The architect’s design was for the cathedral to be 304 feet (92.66 metres) in length.

Two years later, the cathedral was completed at a cost of $600,000 (approximately $13 million today). As the seat of the archdiocese of St. Boniface, the cathedral was known as a basilica because of the colonades on both sides of the oblong structure with an apse at one end (Free Press).

To mark the opening of the new edifice on October 5, 1908, 10,000 members of the Catholic Church participated in a parade that stretched along two  miles of Winnipeg streets, from the Hudson’s Bay stores on Main Street to the doors of the new St. Boniface Cathedral.

While the parade was being formed, “a scene of equal interest was being enacted in St. Boniface,” according to the October 5, 1908, Free Press, “where the bishopric and representative clergy from the various sees and dioceses throughout the Dominion (of Canada) and northwestern states were being ushered into automobiles for the run to the reviewing point opposite to city hall on Main Street. When the final signal was given, no less than 30 big touring cars, each with its complement of church heads and representatives, started in rapid succession for the objective.”

The newspaper said points along the parade route were “black with spectators.”

When the parade started, the spectators “saw a spectacle that never has been equalled in Winnipeg.”

“Without a break in the line the marchers tramped steadily to Market Street and there, at the command from Grand Marshall Bliss, halted. Col. Bliss then performed an impressive act of public homage to the duly constituted ecclesiastical authority when he dismounted and proceeded, in all  humility, to the outstanding automobile where sat Archbishop Duhamel and Archbishop Stanley. There, representing the thousands of Catholics in the line, Colonel Bless knelt and kissed his grace’s ring. Immediately after he arose the 90th (Battalion) band, which had quietly moved out the procession, formed in front of his grace’s automobile and played God Save the King, while the great assemblage, marchers, churchmen and spectators alike, removed their head coverings.”

When the procession moved on, it was said crowds of spectators continued to block the wide streets along the route to the cathedral. The press of the parade watchers was so great that it swallowed up the procession.

The doors of the cathedral were kept locked until the procession arrived. Unfortunately, those taking part in the procession were unable to obtain seats since the pews, gallery and aisles were already occupied.

The dedication service was short, consisting of the benediction celebrated by Bishop Brunnault, followed by the blessing celebration of Archbishop Langevin, who said “the magnificent parade which had just taken place was an event that would ever be remembered in the Catholic Church in the West.”

Guest Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul made a tribute to the pioneers and expressed gratitude “for what had been accomplished in the past.”

The archbishop “conjured up a picture of the Northwest at a time when the aborigines (sic) roamed abroad and hunted the buffalo. When travel (by missionaries) had to be undertaken by snowshoes and dog train, by whale-skin boat and birch-bark canoe ... Now the Indians were cooped up in reserves and could be approached by great railway systems.”

It was appropriate that the archbishop from St. Paul, the state capital of Minnesota, took part in the dedication ceremony for the new cathedral as his city was founded by people who originally called the Red River Settlement home. The first Catholic chapel was founded on November 1, 1841, on land given to the church by Vital Guerin and Benjamin Gervais, both of whom had crossed into the United States from the Red River Settlement. Since the church was dedicated to Saint Paul that was the name given the community previously known as Pig’s Eye after  Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, a Canadian voyageur from Sault Ste. Marie.

The St. Paul archbishop also spoke of Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché, whose tomb was in the new cathedral. Ireland first met Taché when he stopped over to visit the St. Paul Cathedral. At the time, Taché was “a handsome youth of 29 years.” 

On June 22, 1894, at 6:08 a.m., the famous bells of the third St. Boniface Cathedral tolled as an expression of sorrow for the death of Archbishop Taché. To honour the archbishop, whose “heart was too big, too loyal to believe he could be deceived,” his remains were interred in a stone vault under the great altar.

Taché, the  man who had been responsible for “the success obtained by the Catholic Church in the North-West,” had not lived to see the new cathedral erected and dedicated.

(Next week: part 2)