ST BONIFACE CATHEDRAL FIRE
by George Siamandas
It was a hot summer's day, a Monday during that summer of 1968 - July 22. The St Boniface community was celebrating 150 years in Manitoba and St Boniface Cathedral was undergoing refurbishing. It twin towers and roof were being repaired and repainted. The painting crew broke for lunch at noon and noticed some flames coming from the roof once they had gotten to the ground. An alarm was called in but the big church went up in less than an hour. By 1:00 the towers collapsed into the centre of the old church. The Fire trucks reported trouble getting over the Provencher bridge which was partially blocked by onlookers. Thousand came out to view the spectacle.
Reporters said they could feel the heat two blocks away. It was a total loss, a particularly tragic one for the French community. According to insurance agent Bernie Wolfe, the damages were in the $2-2.5 M range. Very few items were salvaged. Fine wood elements, parish records, and other objects were lost. All that was left was the front and a perimeter shell. The fire chief said that there was no way to stop such a fire once it gets started in a big open space like a church. The Cathedral had no sprinklers. There were no fire protection measures required at the time. The fire is thought to have started in the attic portion above the ceiling. And while they did not say for sure, they think the workers may have started it.
PRESERVE OR REBUILD?
The insurance companies spared no time advancing $750,000 to get reconstruction work started. The congregation then spent months deciding whether to break up into several churches or to rebuild as one. There was too much history not to preserve it.
Etienne Gaboury was the architect that helped find a redevelopment solution. The reconstruction has won several design awards.
This was the third building to sit on this site. St Boniface Cathedral was completed in 1908. Its stonework had been crafted by mason Joseph Gauthier whose architect son was involved in the redesign of the interior in later years.
THE ST BONIFACE BELLS
In 1860 the first cathedral which had been built in 1839, burned to the ground. It's damaged bells which had been the first to be heard in the northwest crashed to the ground in the 1860 fire. The three 1,600 pound bells were sent back to their London maker Mears of Whitechapel, makers of the Big ben chimes, to be recast.
They then cris-crossed the ocean five times in a comedy of errors before they could be reinstalled in the third cathedral built in 1868. When the 1908 cathedral was completed they were moved and rang once again. But in the 1968 fire they were reduced to a molten mass of metal. They would never ring again. Fragments of the bells were turned into souvenirs.
1968 A BAD YEAR FOR CHURCH FIRES
The whole year was bad for fires and St Boniface was but one of three churches that burned that year along with St Stephens Broadway in March and St Andrews United in November. Church fires occur too often. A newspaper article the following day reported that a fire occurs every two minutes in churches in North America.