Ottawa

50 years later, convent crash still remembered

A solemn ceremony in Ottawa on Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of one of the worst aviation disasters in Canadian history.

A solemn ceremony in Ottawa on Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of one of the worst aviation disasters in Canadian history.

On May 15, 1956, a CF-100 "Canuck" fighter jet returning to its home base crashed into the Grey Nuns of the Cross convent at Villa St-Louis in Orleans, killing 15 people.

Eleven nuns died in the massive explosion and fire, along with a priest, a cook and the two men aboard the plane.

"It was as if a bomb had fallen on the building," said Sister Laura Barbeau.

Barbeau wasn't at Villa St-Louis the night the plane fell from the sky, but she could have been.

In a last-minute decision, Barbeau and 16 other student nurses stayed late at the Ottawa General Hospital on Bruyere Street to see a play, instead of returning to their convent in Orleans.

When they returned, they found the convent reduced to rubble. They spent the night treating survivors.

"Most of them were under very, very severe shock. They were saved almost miraculously, because everything was in darkness, everything had blown up," said Barbeau.

On Sunday, a day before the 50th anniversary, about 200 nuns, family members and friends of victims gathered with members of the Canadian Forces near the site where the convent once stood.

Residence Saint-Louis, a long-term care facility, now stands on Hiawatha Park Road, built 10 years after the convent was reduced to rubble.

Between the building and the Ottawa River, a cross stands to commemorate the crash. Beside it, a rock is engraved with the victims' names, which were read aloud during Sunday's ceremony.

"We cannot forget. We cannot forget all the terror and the horror and the sadness that everybody went through," said Sister Agathe Gratton, who was posted near Windsor at the time of the accident.

To this day, it's still unknown what caused the crash, though it's believed a problem with the plane's oxygen system caused the crew to lose consciousness.