Effort to get Montreal church fire under control hampered by sub-zero temperatures

The fire affected the rectory of the vacant Saint-Bernardin-de-Sienne church, which is located at 7979 8e Avenue, facing Cremazie Boulevard.

Church in Saint-Michel neighbourhood is heritage site

The Saint-Bernardin-de-Sienne church has been vacant for more than five years, so firefighters didn't risk fighting the fire from inside the building, a department spokesperson said. (Radio-Canada)

About 150 Montreal firefighters were out in the frigid cold early Sunday, battling an abandoned church fire in the borough of Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension.

The fire affected the rectory of the vacant Saint-Bernardin-de-Sienne Church, which is located at 7979 8th Avenue at the corner of Crémazie Boulevard. Authorities were called to the scene at 3:30 a.m.

With structural concerns and water freezing quickly when sprayed, firefighters were faced with a challenging situation, said Ian Ritchie, chief of operations with the Montreal fire department.

"You have to understand, we work with water. It sprays on everyone and freezes so they are unable to move," he told Radio-Canada. He said the department's equipment was also freezing.

"It's extremely difficult."

Ian Ritchie, chief of operations with the Montreal fire department, says the water used to fight the fire was misting and then freezing on everything, making the fire even more difficult to fight Sunday. (Radio-Canada)

That is why so many firefighters were deployed, he explained, so they could rotate those on duty and keep warm.

The church is located near a fire station and the chief said it took about a minute for authorities to arrive on the scene.

As they arrived, Ritchie said they quickly discovered the fire was in the residence, also known as the rectory, located behind the church.

Firefighters remained outside of the building rather than risk entering an abandoned structure, Ritchie said, as they were concerned it would collapse.

"We have a speciality team that is on site," he said. "They go inside the church to make sure the fire doesn't spread from the residence into the church itself."

There was a partial roof collapse in the rectory, he said, but the fire has been prevented from spreading to the rest of the site and it was under control by 6:30 a.m.

However, because of the partial roof collapse, the fire continued to smolder into the morning. Ritchie said firefighters will be on the scene for most of the day, keeping the fire under control.

Church is a heritage site

Built in the 1950s, the church's prominent white roof and detached bell tower is easily seen from Highway 40 as it is just across the street from the raised roadway.

The church is a heritage site, though it has been closed since 2013.

The church was part of a post-Second World War movement to expand the Catholic Church's reach into Montreal communities, said Dinu Bumbaru, spokesperson for Héritage Montréal.

"It's a rather interesting church in terms of modern architecture, which remains in connection with tradition," said Bumbaru, citing the church's concrete, vaulted roof. 

The Saint-Bernardin-de-Sienne church, built in the 50s, is easily seen from Montreal's Highway 40. (Google Street View)

"In terms of artwork, we're talking of mosaics, stained glass and sculpture."

A church in those days, he said, was not just a shelter. It was a community hub bringing together art and other talents. The fire, he said, is unfortunate news that highlights the need to preserve the increasing number of empty churches across the city.

"This is not the first time the point has been raised: How can we secure the building? Is there a technology or system for moth balling and monitoring [the building] while discussions are happening for its future?" Bumbaru said.

"Otherwise we have a building that is exposed to the risk of fire or vandalism."

With files from Radio-Canada


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