Concert info for DC Presentations

Anniversary Vignette #9
Fire at Chalmers United Church, April 10, 1955

 

April 10, 1955 - Easter Sunday – was a warm and sunny day.  A congregation of 1700 had attended the Easter Morning service in Chalmers United Church sanctuary and there were about 400 children in the Sunday School Hall.   At 4:30 pm, as the church sexton, Mr. William Hughes, was preparing for the evening service, he discovered a fire in the basement of the Sunday School Hall [1]. 

        Flames and black smoke quickly engulfed the entire Sunday School Hall and its roof collapsed.  Through the heroic efforts of the Ottawa Fire Department, the sanctuary and its domed roof were eventually saved from destruction, although there was considerable smoke and water damage[2].   The walls of the Sunday School Hall remained intact.

                

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two firemen on the roof of the burning Sunday School Hall (Ottawa Journal)

 
              As the flames raged in the Sunday School Hall and smoke darkened the sanctuary, church members and other volunteers worked to remove as many items as possible.    One of those involved in this effort was Richard Cowan.  He had been out driving when he noted fire trucks heading towards Chalmers United Church.  In 1995, on the 40th Anniversary of the fire, he wrote:  “As the fire gained a foothold, I organized a group of friends and other onlookers to assist in carrying out the pulpit, pulpit bench and chairs, communion table, baptismal font from the sanctuary as well as the brass cross, which at that time was free-standing on a shelf on the organ screen, to the safety of a garage across the street.  We were also able to save all the Minister’s and choir gowns stored in the area now occupied by the library.  We then removed the personal effects from the Sexton’s apartment ….  On Easter Monday, some friends helped me salvage the Hymn books from the pews in the church and, being a warm sunny day, were able to set them out on the sidewalk to dry.”   

        The pall of thick smoke that covered the centre town area did not deter thousands of citizens from gathering around the church.  Police had difficulty maintaining clearance for fire department vehicles and hose lines.  Nearly three hours after the fire started, the firemen began to win their battle and it seemed that the church sanctuary would be saved.  

        In spite of these salvage efforts by Richard Cowan and others, there were major losses in other areas of the church.  Rev. Leonard Griffith lost everything in his office on the mezzanine floor of the Sunday School Hall – church records, his sermons, manuscripts and valuable library.   Almost all of the stained glass windows were broken by the fire, or deliberately to let the smoke escape.   The carpets in the sanctuary were soaked in water but most of the pews were spared.  Although there was a foot of water in the lower parts of the chancel, the organ, which had recently undergone extensive renovations, was spared major damage. 

        The thick smoke, which officials attributed to varnish on the interior paneling, took its toll on the fire-fighters: twenty-one were taken to hospital suffering the effects of smoke inhalation.  Sadly, while assisting one such affected fireman, Mr. Alex W. MacDonald suffered a heart attack and died at the scene.   A window in the Chapel is dedicated to the memory of Mr. MacDonald, who was a senior elder of Chalmers Church. 

 

        The fire, which started in a basement locker used to store Sunday School  supplies, was presumed to have been deliberately set.  In the

early morning of the same day, there had been a suspicious fire in an apartment building across the street from Chalmers Church and in the

previous weeks, smaller fires had occurred in St. John’s and St. Theresa’s churches.

       

    After the April 10, 1955 fire, the congregation of Chalmers United Church held morning worship services in the Capital Theatre, evening services in Dominion United Church, at Queen and Metcalfe,  and Sunday School in the Kent Street Public School.  Restoration of the Chalmers Church building proceeded rapidly.  Worship services resumed in the sanctuary on September 11, 1955.  The reconstruction of the former Sunday School Hall and the building of Woodside Hall and the Memorial Chapel continued for another year – the topic of a subsequent vignette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 After the fire, the Sunday School Hall was open to the sky (Photo by Phillip Cowan)

 

Sources:   

Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, April 11, 1955

 Richard Cowan, Recollections on the 40th Anniversary of the Chalmers           Church Fire        



[1] The Sunday School Hall was located on the north side of the sanctuary with the minister’s study and library on the mezzanine floor; Woodside Hall was not completed until 1956.) 

[2] When Chalmers Church was built (1912-1914), windows on the north side of the sanctuary could be opened to connect with the Sunday School Hall.  To prevent sound from the Sunday School Hall from disrupting worship services in the sanctuary, these windows had been bricked over in 1946, a feature that was credited with saving the sanctuary from greater damage by the fire.