'Absolute horror': Witnesses cried as fire consumed St. Boniface Cathedral 50 years ago
For a long time, St. Boniface was called the Cathedral City because of the grandeur of the building
The growl of ravenous flames and collapsing stone roared through Winnipeg 50 years ago as the twin bell towers of the St. Boniface Cathedral tottered then crashed through the roof.
They were weakened by a raging fire that blew out the colossal rose window at the centre of the limestone basilica, sending new towers skyward — of thick smoke.
It was midday on a hot Monday in 1968, when the city's French community was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first Roman Catholic mission on the site, established by Father Joseph-Norbert Provencher in 1818.
Set on the bank of the Red River, across from fur trading posts at the forks of the Red and Assiboine, it served as the cornerstone of francophone settlement in Western Canada — the first permanent mission west of the Great Lakes — and helped found the community of St. Boniface.
The mission, which grew into its own diocese and later, archdiocese, covered a vast region in its early days. Its territory stretched from northwestern Ontario south to the U.S. state of Kentucky, and west through Manitoba to the Pacific coast, said Aidan Prenovault, who is with the St. Boniface Museum.
"It was a massive operation," he said.
At noon on Monday, July 22, 1968, workers were sprucing up the cathedral, doing some reshingling and painting and minor work to the towers, when one of them flicked away a cigarette.
They took a break for lunch and climbed to the ground. Shortly afterward, they spotted flames leaping from the roof.
That flicked-away butt had landed in the church's wood chip insulation, where it smouldered and ignited. The fire quickly spread to the 60-year-old structure's dry wood frame.
"Since there were no sprinklers installed at that time, it was the perfect recipe for disaster," said Prenovault.
Within an hour of the fire starting, the towers had fallen and the interior of the cathedral was crushed and being consumed by the flames.
Some witness reports talk about people sobbing while others stood in shock, mouths hanging open or covered by their hands, folded together in a mix of prayer and disbelief.
"For the most part, it was absolute horror. There were people on the grounds and on Taché, and even on the Provencher Bridge, watching in just absolute horror at the fact that the beloved cathedral was burning to the ground," Prenovault said.
"It was devastating for the community, because for them it was a real source of pride."
For a long, long time, St. Boniface was called the Cathedral City because of the grandeur of the building, he said.
Some things, including an organ and crucifix, were pulled out before police declared it unsafe for anyone to go back inside. Furniture, books, documents, vestments and other artifacts could not be recovered.
The heat was so intense, reporters wrote they could feel it two blocks away, said George Siamandas, a Winnipeg historian who runs the Winnipeg Time Machine blogsite.
The bells, which crashed to the ground with the towers, were turned into a molten mass of metal.
When the fire was finally extinguished, all that was left was the facade, sacristy (the room where a priest prepares for a service) and exterior stone walls.
Parishioners expressed a willingness to take on debt to rebuild the cathedral as it was, but when estimates exceeded $10 million, and with church attendance sliding, a decision was made to build a smaller structure.
Franco-Manitoban architect Étienne Gaboury was awarded the $630,000 contract and his design, half the size of what once existed, was built within the remaining walls.
The hybrid cathedral, which opened in July 1972, blends old and new, allowing visitors to walk through the arches of the old facade into a stone-and-steel courtyard before transitioning to the newer structure.
Inside, the stone sacristy and walls shoulder a modern enclosure of wood and glass.
"The new cathedral is symbolic of the community's resilience to grow from its ashes, rise and continue to thrive this many years later," Prenovault said.
It was designated a provincial heritage site in February 1994.
The St. Boniface museum has some pieces of marble from the cathedral's altar, the clappers that struck the bells to make them ring, old tools used on stonework in the construction, a jar of charred wood and a piece of the roof found in a backyard the day of the fire.
It was 500 metres from the cathedral, presumably propelled there by the tower collapse.
Tragedy and persistence
A total of six chapels, churches or cathedrals have stood at that spot since Provencher's arrival.
Two were razed by fires that were wholly preventable. Aside from the cigarette-sparked blaze in 1968, a grease fire during a candle-making session devoured the third structure in 1860.
Despite a long history of tragedy faced by the community, its members have equalled that in persistence.
The first structure at the corner of what became Taché Avenue and Avenue de la Cathédrale was a modest log box quickly assembled when Provencher was sent to Manitoba by the Bishop of Quebec to open a mission.
It was primarily built as Provencher's home but was also used as a chapel and school while plans were made for a more formal structure to serve those purposes.
Construction began on the proper church and school in 1819.
That one, made of oak and measuring 80 by 35 feet, was completed a few years later and featured a bell tower.
The bell — currently on display in the St. Boniface Museum — was cast in England and donated by Lord Selkirk, who granted the land for the mission and later, 15,000 more acres that would be used to establish the community of St. Boniface.
In 1822, when Provencher was consecrated Titular Bishop of Juliopolis, the new church also earned a loftier title — cathedral.
As the community grew, the need for a larger sanctuary did as well, so in 1832 an expansion was made to the existing structure.
A grand three-storey addition, crowned by twin spires at each corner, took command of the riverbank and could be seen for long distances.
It was brought down by a great fire in 1860 that also consumed all the mission's historical records.
The three 725 kilogram (1,600 pound) bells being used at that time crashed to the ground but were saved. They were sent back to their London maker, the same company behind the chimes inside Big Ben, to be recast.
Provencher didn't live to see that tragedy. He had shepherded his original mission to the point where it was elevated to the diocese of St. Boniface in 1847, making him the first bishop of the region, but he died in 1853.
His legacy included the school he founded, now known as the Université de Saint-Boniface.
Provencher's successor, Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché, ordered the construction of the replacement cathedral. Made of stone and built with a tighter budget in 1862-63, it was much smaller than the previous building.
It resembled the 1819 church with its single bell tower but rang with the bells that had been saved from the previous cathedral fire.
The funeral of Louis Riel, hanged in Regina for treason, was held inside that cathedral in 1885. He is among many notable Manitobans buried in the cathedral's cemetery.
By 1900, St. Boniface was the fifth largest community in Western Canada and had been named the seat of the archdiocese of St. Boniface, the highest Catholic authority in Western Canada.
But across the river, Winnipeg was growing even faster and expanding its reach.
Amid fears of amalgamation and seeing the need to re-establish a commanding presence on the riverbank, the community, then led by Archbishop Adélard Langevin, began fundraising for a larger cathedral.
Work on the new structure — the fifth and largest — began 1906.
When it opened in 1908, the same year St. Boniface incorporated as a city, it became one of the most imposing churches in Western Canada with seating for 2,500.
"It was known as the Mother Church of Western Canada, so the size of it reflected that status," said Prenovault.
The smaller stone cathedral from 1863 remained adjacent to the new one for about a year but was torn down in 1909 to make space.
The bells that had been in it — the ones saved from the 1860 fire and recast — were transferred to the limestone cathedral, the last place they would chime.
On July 14-15 of this year, St. Boniface celebrated 200 years since the original mission was established, but it also showed how much has changed.
Current priest Father Marcel Carriere said the festivities included significant contributions from, and honouring of, First Nations. That involved concerts, acknowledgement of reconciliation, and the traditional Indigenous concepts of respect and sharing that form the seven natural laws or sacred teachings.
It's a far cry from Provencher's time, when his mission was to convert the "Indian" nations and "morally improve" the delinquent Christians who had "adopted the ways of the Indians," according to the St. Boniface Cathedral's website.
The anniversary also included an outdoor mass for 200 people, a conference led by the current Bishop of Quebec, and the closure of Avenue de la Cathédrale for various events.
Carriere praised the forethought of his predecessors and Gaboury for preserving the old facade, which has become a symbol of the past and of the strength of the community going forward.
"It's historical. It's a landmark — how often is it in pictures of Winnipeg?" he said. "People come from all over the place to see it, and to be part of it by sitting in on a mass.
"Something about it is intangible. You can't put a finger on it. It's history, but it's more than that. It's a legacy."