St. Boniface Cathedral fires — basilica fire in 1860 started when tallow spilled on stove

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

In an article outlining the history of the many St. Boniface Cathedrals obtained from oral tradition and the written testimonies of old inhabitants — unfortunately, the diocese’s early archives were destroyed in the 1860 fire — the Morning Telegram related the stories behind the churches familiar to Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché.

Using an account written by Judge Louis Arthur Prud’homme, the Telegram reported that in December 1860, Father Goiffon was travelling to Pembina from St. Boniface in a slow-moving caravan. The priest felt the party was proceeding too slowly and rode off ahead as Pembina approached. Only a few kilometres from Pembina, a blizzard arose. Feeling that his feet were beginning to freeze, Goiffon dismounted from his horse to stamp his feet in an attempt to restore the circulation in his extremities. But his feet were frozen and he was unable to stand. His horse, worn out from the journey, fell down and died from the cold.

Father Goiffon wrapped himself up in clothes as best he could and took shelter from the biting cold and snow by snuggling against his dead horse. For four nights, he remained undiscovered; all the time, crying out in the hope that someone would come upon him before he froze to death. Goiffin was on the verge of death when a young lad travelling in an oxcart, turned to his father and said, “I think I hear a man shouting.”

His father dismissed the sound as the howl of a wolf, but the boy persisted in his claim. Soon, they came upon Goiffon, “who had become delirious and crying out into the bleak night.”

The man and boy transported the stricken priest to Pembina where it was found his limbs were so badly frozen that they had to be amputated — the right foot below the knee and half the left foot.

It took several days before Goiffon could be taken to St. Boniface where a surgeon was available to perform the multiple amputation. The operation was to be undertaken in the house of Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher, who had built his residence joining the rear of the cathedral. Goiffon believed he was on death’s door as the bandages covering his wounds had become displaced during his journey to Red River, allowing blood to flow so freely that it could not be stopped. In fact, his prospects of survival were considered so remote that preparations were being made for his funeral.

“As the provisions of candles was exhausted, new ones had to be melted. During the operation in the kitchen, the grease took fire and soon the whole building was in flames,” wrote Prud’homme. 

“When people came to lift Father Goiffon from his bed and carry him out into the open air where the temperature marked 25 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero (-31.6°C), the poor priest, who had suffered such prolonged agony from the cold, begged to be left to burn rather than freeze to death. But no sooner had the cold air struck him than the hemorrhage ceased, and from that moment his convalescence began.”

The bishop’s residence and the cathedral were destroyed, but Father Goiffon was saved. For years, the priest continued his “zealous” labour “in spite of his wooden leg and foot, always whittled by himself.” When his story was written in 1906, Father Goiffon was still living in St. Paul.

The Nor’Wester, the first newspaper in Red River, reported in its December 17, 1860, issue that the fire “has never been equalled in this place for suddenness, rapidity, and destructiveness. Within an hour after it began, the Bishop’s beautiful residence was one mass of ruins, and the flames were raging wildly on the roof of the magnificent cathedral.”

In its account, the Nor’Wester said the fire started when two girls (the only mention of names in other accounts are of a servant named Ursule and a Sister Gosselin) were preparing candles in the kitchen for the Goiffon’s expected funeral mass. They put 60 pounds (27.21 kilograms) of buffalo tallow into an immense kettle on a stove. The tallow started to boil over and caused a small fire when it hit the red-hot stove. The alarmed girls tried to lift the kettle off the stove, but spilled more tallow in the process, which added fuel for the flames. When they threw water onto the flames, it only helped to spread the fire.

After the girls raised the alarm, Magloire Morin struggled in vain to douse the flames. 

Boards for Goiffon’s coffin were positioned three feet above the stove to dry by the carpenter Galarneau. The boards  caught fire, enhancing the rapidly spreading flames.

Behind the stove, a blind man named Ducharme, a charity case housed by Bishop Taché, was being helped by Morin to escape the fire, but “ill-tempered and stubborn” he “would not go.  He probably thought the fire of less consequence than it really was; and having frozen his feet slightly the day previous, he refused to move or be moved. Morin did his best to drag him out, but could not.”

Morin rushed to the foot of the stairs and shouted for help, “but the only person above ... was occupied in saving Père Goiffon.”

The old man was left in the kitchen as no one was allowed to return for fear gunpowder stored in the residence would explode. “Stifled by the smoke, he fainted in the midst of the flames” and died near the front door of the house, according to Prud’homme.

The Nor’Wester said virtually everything went up in flames which caused £25,000 (then a pound equalled $5 — an 1860 dollar is approximately $24 today) in damages. The only items saved were the benches and pews, the organ (built by Dr. Duncan, a medical officer in the Sixth Regiment of Foot stationed in Red River 1846-48; the organ was frequently played by Sister Lagrave), the great altar and all the pictures. “Much was rescued by Sister Gosselin, who rushed three times into it (the cathedral) amid suffocating smoke. The third time she herself partially caught fire ...”

When the cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1860, the altar built by Michael Vincent was saved from the flames and became the main altar of the rebuilt cathedral.

“To anyone standing in front, the scene presented a wild grandeur — flames rolling hither and thither — sweeping upwards 50 or 100 feet (15.24 or 30.48 metres), and enveloping the edifice ... the roof fell in a tremendous crash,” reported the Nor’Wester. “Fanned by a strong south wind, the fire burned around the steeples fiercely. At length, the great belfry began to totter, and away went one steeple, to be soon after followed by the other.”

Taché, who had been away on missionary work for 54 days (44 nights sleeping under the stars), returned on February 23, 1861, and “gazed mournfully upon the ruins” of the cathedral and house built under the direction of Provencher. 

Taché wrote that upon returning, he “knelt in the midst of the ruins caused by the disaster of the 14th of December on that spot where lately stood a thriving religious establishment. What should the bishop of St. Boniface do in the presence of these ruins, and under the weight of so heavy a load of affliction, but bow down his head in Christian and loving submission to the Divine will ...” 

To rebuild the cathedral, Taché set off on a “begging tour of Lower Canada” (now Québec) and Europe. At the Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal, his sermon brought tears to those attending and “purses opened wide.”

Preliminary drawings for the new cathedral were prepared by Taché’s cousin in Québec, Eugene-Étienne Taché, which were later modified by Montreal architect Victor Bourgeau. By September 1861, formal papers were prepared to bring stone masons and carpenters from Quebec to begin construction on the cathedral.

Taché blessed the cornerstone of the main building on April 6, 1863. Until the main building was finished, services were held in the sacristy erected in 1862.

By November, new walls, roofs and an arch were completed and the cathedral was ready for services. This cathedral would remain in use until the dedication of the new cathedral in 1908.

The first church of St. Boniface was built on land that originally belonged to Louis Jolicoeur. Lord Selkirk pursued the French-Canadian settler to exchange his land along the east bank of the Red River for another piece of land in what became Elm Park. Father Provencher had the first small log chapel, measuring 30-by-50 feet (9.14-by-15.24 metres), built along the road (now Taché Avenue) that skirted the Red River. The chapel was begun in September 1818 and the first mass was said there on All Saints’ Day, November 1. 

Father Provencher dedicated the chapel to Saint Boniface in honour of the des Meurons Regiment, the Swiss soldiers of German descent brought by Lord Selkirk to protect the Red River Settlement from rampaging North West Company fur traders and their Métis allies. Saint Boniface is the patron saint of Germany.

Technically, the church could not at first be called a cathedral as it wasn’t the “see” of a bishop until two years later.

On the day the church was dedicated in 1818, the children J.B. Lagimodière, Reine Lagimodière and Joseph Houle had their first communion. The sacrament of baptism was conferred on an unnamed aboriginal who died two days later. The first marriage was between a des Meurons Regiment soldier named Rodger and Marguerite Lagimodière.

A larger chapel, measuring 33-by-100 feet (approximately 10-by-30.48 metres) and built of wood, was begun in 1820. When Father Provencher was appointed auxiliary bishop of the territory in 1820, the church became a cathedral — a church named after a bishop’s official throne called a cathedra. Two years later, Provencher became the consecrated bishop for the diocese of Juliopolis.

In 1830, Bishop Provencher journeyed east to collect funds to build a stone cathedral. After spending a year  and a half in Lower Canada, Provencher returned to St. Boniface on June 17, 1832, with enough money to begin work on a new cathedral, but he had to wait another year in order to hire masons from Lower Canada. The only nearby mason was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and unavailable to work on the cathedral.

According to the Telegram article, the workmen employed to erect the stone work for the cathedral were master masons Beauchamp and Fournier, and assistant masons Gaudry, Hogue and Daunais. The man who finished the twin spires of the cathedral was named Michael Vincent.

“In order to encourage the workmen and hasten on the construction, Bishop Provencher did the most humble and menial work with his own hands. He helped carry the stone and hoist it up the scaffolding. When a hand-barrow was loaded he would say to two of the men, ‘You take one end and I will manage the other alone.’ For the bishop was a man of herculean frame (six-foot-four) and strength.”

While Provencher was in Rome visiting the Pope, the work on the cathedral was overseen by Father Jean Baptiste Thibault. When the bishop returned in April 1837, the work had not been completed. Actually, it wasn’t until 1839 that the cathedral was finished when the ceilings and walls were tinted a “very little blue.” Grey Nun Sister Lagrave “bravely climbing ladders and scaffolds, painted a pretty scheme of floral decoration” on the blue background.

The new cathedral included three massive bells, each “weighing 400 or 500 pounds (181.4 or 226.8 kilograms),” according to Prud’Homme. The 1860 Nor’Wester report of the fire gives the bells’ combined weight as 1,600 pounds (725.7 kilograms). The bells were cast by the London, England, bell founder Mears of Whitechapel, famous as the maker of the chimes for Big Ben.

After a pre-1860 visit to the cathedral conducted by Bishop Taché, the bells inspired the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier to write The Red River Voyageur.  In his poem, specific mention is made of the bells in the spires of the cathedral — “the turrets twain”— as seen by boatmen from the river. According to the poem, the chime of the bells brought a smile to the voyageur, “who knows the vesper ringing/Of the bells of St. Boniface.”

“The first stone cathedral was larger than the present one,” according to the Telegram, “and the old inhabitants who saw the church with the ‘turrets twain’ were so deeply impressed with its grandeur in the midst of what was then a wilderness that they prefer it to the more recent and more ornate edifice.”

The bells were saved from the 1860 fire and sent to Mears in England to be recast. Before the bells could be returned to St. Boniface, they criss-crossed the Atlantic five times in what has often been described as a comedy of errors. Once the bells finally  arrived at York Factory along Hudson Bay, they were shipped to St. Boniface by York Boat.

Taché hesitated to outlay the funds needed to complete twin steeples for the new cathedral. In fact, Taché decided only to have a single spire built. The bells  were finally installed in the sole spire in 1883. “One day at last the celebrated ‘bells of St. Boniface’ pealed forth from their belfry above the front door of the church,” wrote Prud’homme, “inviting by their sweet and far-reaching sounds the travellers on our prairies to prayer, meditation, and the memory of their departed ones. I have called them ‘celebrated’ and truly these dear bells are not at all commonplace.”

In 1906, it was reported that “our first three bishops will have had his cathedral. In fact the first one had two and his second, the great stone edifice, was destroyed by fire. The third cathedral, having become too small and altogether unsuited to the wants of our day, will be pulled down in about two years, to make room for the fourth cathedral.”

The famous “bells of St. Boniface” did not survive the 1968 fire as the intensity of the blaze had reduced them to a molten mass.

“Sentimentally, it is the greatest loss that can be imagined,” said St. Boniface Archbishop Maurice Baudeux, watching as the flames licked through the cathedral on July 22, 1968 (Free Press).