Friday, October 14, 2016

Hochelaga School Fire

Sarah Maxwell received her Elementary diploma from the McGill Normal School in 1892 and her Model diploma the following year. That was enough to get a good position in one of Montreal's larger Protestant schools, but not normally sufficient to be eligible to become a school principal, at least for a woman. Nevertheless, by the time she was 25, Miss Maxwell found herself the head teacher of the multi-grade, three-storey school in Hochelaga. Built in 1890, it was relatively new, having replaced a one-room school that the Montreal Protestant board had inherited when the city annexed the village of Hochelaga. Much thinking had gone into the design of schools in recent years, but Hochelaga's contained one inconsistent feature: the Kindergarten was on the top floor, making it hard for those with little legs to get to class.


On 26 February 1907, a fire broke out in the school and quickly spread, forcing an evacuation. Having seen the classes on the lower floors safely out, Sarah Maxwell suddenly realized that the kindergarten class was trapped in the attic. "Miss Maxwell could have escaped," an eyewitness recounted, "but she went to the top floor to rescue the little ones. She did rescue about thirty of them, and died while attempting to save more." She "handed the children to workmen who had put ladders up to the windows. The firemen only rescued two children." The remaining sixteen "suffocated" in the smoke alongside their principal.


Public appreciation of this act of courage was matched only by the horror of the tragedy itself, which newspapers described in grim detail. Pictures of the dead children were printed, accompanied by headlines such as "Heart-Breaking Scenes at the Montreal Morgue" and "Scenes of Sorrow at the Bereaved Homes." Newspapers also pointed accusing fingers at the firemen, who arrived too late to control the fire and to stop Miss Maxwell from plunging back into the smoke, and at the school authorities for their carelessness in placing the youngest children in the least accessible rooms.


The city mourned Sarah Maxwell in a style that was elaborate, but entirely appropriate. Her funeral was held two days later - not in St Mary's Church in Hochelaga, where a service for many of the victims took place at the same time, but in Christ Church downtown. The cathedral was "packed" with mourners, who then followed the cortege up to Mount Royal Cemetery where she was buried in a lot donated by the trustees. A call went out for a fitting monument to the heroine, and was answered by the Montreal Star which set up a fund to create a "children's testimonial." Children across the city sent donations of ten cents or more: "I send you 25 cents for 'Sarah Maxwell Memorial," one little girl wrote. "Mamma cried when she read about her in the Star." The fund eventually paid for a touching monument on the site which overlooks the section of the cemetery with children's graves. It is dedicated "in loving memory" to the lady herself and to "the little ones who perished with her."


When the Hochelaga school was rebuilt the following year it was renamed "Sarah Maxwell Memorial," and when that school was closed after the Second World War a new building in the northern part of the city took the name. Now, even that school is long gone, but the Professional Library of the English Montreal School Board has been officially named the Sarah Maxwell Library. It features a portrait of Miss Maxwell near the door, along with a framed copy of a letter describing the incident (quoted above) written by a boy, Orrin Rexford, to friend who had moved away. "It will be a long time before we forget her heroism," he concluded.

courtesy: qahn (March 18, 2013)

©2016 Linda Sullivan-Simpson
The Past Whispers
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