Published in the Montreal Gazette on April 5, 2017
While I am normally not a strong advocate of changing the names of public venues, I have developed for various reasons an interest in an initiative taken by the borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, in conjunction with the Atelier d’histoire Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. It would seem that both the borough and local history society would like to change the name of Parc Dézéry-Lafontaine to that of Parc Sarah Maxwell.
For those who do not know, Sarah Maxwell is a Montreal legend among this city’s local historians, particularly in the district of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. The neighbourhood, popularly known as Ho-Ma by the many youthful residents who inhabit it, has a long and colourful history. Some of it, however, is indeed unfortunate, yet nevertheless inspiring. The story of Sarah Maxwell falls into this category.
In February of 1907, Maxwell was the 31-year-old principal of a modest, working-class school on Prefontaine Street, just north of Ste. Catherine East. Known simply as Hochelaga School, the Protestant facility served the neighbourhood’s English-speaking children, most of whom had fathers working at the Angus Yards or the port, which was just a short distance away.
On Feb. 26 of that same year, a fire broke out in the 1890 structure, which one Montreal journal had previously labelled “a death trap.”
While some pupils and teachers managed to escape the blaze, others remained trapped in a second-storey classroom. It was there that Sarah Maxwell handed one pupil after another to firemen atop ladders. Ignoring their calls to save herself, Maxwell, enveloped in a thick, black, toxic smoke, could be seen to the last desperately shuffling children out the window to waiting firefighters. Suddenly, there were no more to be seen.
When the conflagration was finally quelled, Maxwell and 16 youngsters between the ages of three and eight were found dead on the floor of the classroom in question.
In the days that followed the tragedy, the City of Montreal promised melancholic citizens that a memorial of some sort would be put in place somewhere in the town to cite the remarkable heroism of the courageous educator, as well as to commemorate the lives of the young children who perished. In the last analysis, it was just that — a promise, and nothing was ever done by the municipality.
While one would think that in that context, the proposal of both the borough and the local history society would be good to go. Sadly, however, that is not the case as it seems that the civic bureaucracy is insisting that the proponents of the scheme locate descendants of Sarah Maxwell in order to determine whether they agree with the idea or not.
It’s difficult to comprehend what exactly the borough authorities are thinking. Miss Maxwell was unmarried (always a problem when looking for descendants) and has been dead for more than 110 years. Offspring of her brothers and sisters (probably great great nephews and great great nieces) may very well be scattered throughout the world, some perhaps totally ignorant of their ancestor’s heroism.
I somehow doubt that Mayor Jean Drapeau sought the approbation of the progeny of Victor Hugo when his administration named a newly created inner city street after him in 1986, so I wonder what is going on here. As both a genealogist and family historian, I know full well that tracking down distant relatives is more often than not next to an impossible task.
It is for me mind-boggling that a municipal culture that has shown in the past so little difficulty eliminating significant, century-old place names from the urban landscape, yet finds itself incapable of endorsing a name change to a minor park in the city’s east end, without posing potentially insurmountable obstacles.
Both the borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and the Atelier d’histoire Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve are to be commended for having taken this magnanimous action.
It is to be hoped that, regardless as to whether descendants are found or not, the borough will be able to respect a commitment made by other Montrealers to honour the memory of Sarah Maxwell – albeit 110 years ago!
Below, Sarah Maxwell, courtesy of the EMSB archives