Published in the Montreal Gazette on April 21, 2012.
Little was heard of the St. Jean de Dieu mental health sanctuary during the first fifteen years of its existence, so one must assume that the shelter administered by the good Sisters of Providence functioned smoothly. However, all this was destined to change on May 6, 1890, in a deadly fire in the women’s division of the Longue Pointe facility in east end Montreal.
It was a Tuesday in the late morning when the flames were first spotted. Almost immediately, there were conflicting views as to where they had originated. According to Sister Therese, the energetic Lady Superior of the Longue Pointe Lunatic Asylum, the fire started on the chapel roof although later testimony by others before the Coroner’s Inquiry suggested that it emanated in a cupboard in a bathroom on the third floor. Admittedly, there was absolutely no disagreement as to the rapidity with which the conflagration spread throughout the doomed complex. In fact, the inferno was so intense that only a handful of human remains were ever found by the investigators.
James O’Rourke, engineer and outside manager for the asylum authorities, was in close proximity to the buildings when he spotted the flames at the same moment as one of the patients ran up to him shouting “fire”. O’Rourke, who had worked at the Longue Pointe institution since its construction, saw the combustion in the third storey and rushed to be of assistance. He and several other men managed to save the lives of at least fourteen inmates “by breaking in the floor of the gallery in which the women were huddled”. In the course of the day, there were many acts of genuine heroism.
As it turned out, The Montreal Star reported that it was believed that “there were only two wards in which any one died, the third and fourth. It was impossible for the fire to have started from the furnaces, as they were not in that wing of the building. The doors of the wards were always closed. The inmates had certain hours to go out, usually just before and after noon. There was no other escape other than the stairs and doorways”.
At the time, there were 1297 patients along with sixty- seven sisters and a hundred nurses in the building. Sister Therese, who was completely overwhelmed with the enormity of the disaster, rang the alarm herself and the city was telephoned and asked to send fire engines to the site. Montreal Fire Chief Benoit, having first obtained permission from the municipality’s mayor to venture beyond Montreal’s then city limits, wasted no time in getting to the scene. Benoit quickly realised, however, that the situation was hopeless and that any effort should be directed into the saving of as many lives as possible. That task, however, was not an easy one.
The Sisters, both lay and religious, also did all in their power to salvage as many unfortunates as they could. In that regard, the male attendants were equally determined. Nevertheless, their courageous work was seriously hampered by the dense smoke which rapidly filled the corridors of the entire fabric. Some patients, who had hitherto been reckoned to be harmless, suddenly turned violent, some even steadfastly refused to leave the fiery inferno. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, others actually assisted the authorities in attempting to clear the various pavilions.
A steady drizzle awaited those who left the structure and gathered outside the untoward asylum. Eventually, according to a local journal, “the rescued inmates were temporarily disposed of in the best manner possible under the circumstances in the Asile de St. Benoit de Joseph, the Deaf and Dumb Institution on St. Denis street, the Fullum street Mother House of the Sisters of Providence, and the outbuildings of the Asylum”.
In its May 18th, 1890 edition, The Dominion Illustrated reported that “the sight that met the eyes of both sane and insane was a terrible one. There were still people in the burning central and adjoining sections of the building. Some of them could be seen as they stood clasping the iron bars of the windows in their hands and rending the air with demoniacal shouts and cries. Laughing, cursing, entreating and praying; singing coarse ribald songs, gazing vacantly at the excited multitude below them; making vain endeavours to wrest the heavy iron bars from the windows: careless and indifferent, eager and hopeful, they furnished a strange and vivid spectacle”.
The fire raged for the better part of the day destroying virtually everything in its path. In all, 86 people were killed, 81 of them female inmates.