81 years ago, the city of Niagara Falls experienced one of its greatest fires in history when disaster struck at Loretto Academy on the evening of January 10th, 1938. In 1861, a tavern called The Canada House was repaired and remodeled for the five Sisters of Loretto who formed the first community. After the sale of some property to the railway in 1869, construction began on the strong stone structure now known as the North Wing. Ten years later, the Central and South wings were added and the original Canada House was relocated to the rear of the property.
The evening of the fire was a typical one for Niagara; clear, cold and windy with some snow on the ground. At 9:00 p.m., the 65 children (ranging in age from 5 to 17) and 40 nuns had just settled down in their beds for the night. Thankfully, the fire was discovered early and all residents were successfully alerted. All of the children were wrapped in warm blankets and evacuated to safety.
Not long after, the neighbours arrived to lend a helping hand. More than 170 boys and seminarians from the adjacent Mount Carmel College quickly rescued as much artwork and furniture as they could to the safety of Mount Carmel’s gymnasium. Shortly after, fire crews and equipment arrived from many local fire stations as well as additional men and equipment from New York.
Although the exact cause was never determined, the fire was believed to have started in a laundry chute. The flames spread rapidly through the upper floors of the Central and South wings before high winds caused the flames to move downward to the main and second floors. The convent was soon a blazing spectacle that was visible for miles against the dark winter sky. The fire drew hundreds of onlookers to the scene and caused one of the worst traffic jams in Niagara Falls history.
Although originally thought to be in the $350,000 range, damages from the fire later totalled $650,000, which was quite a sum in 1938! Miraculously, the original North Wing remained undamaged. As well, the walls in the fire ravaged Central and South wings were proven to be structurally sound and were utilized in the rebuilding in the same year. Although the top floor and the famous cupola were never rebuilt, restorations to the property were completed in September of 1938.
Sadly, Loretto Academy is no longer open. It closed its boarding school in 1969 but continued as a day school called Loretto High School until 1982. From 1982 to 2005, the Loretto Christian Life Centre operated out of the building offering spiritual retreats to many grade 8 students and various other groups. Now owned by a hotel development company, I certainly hope that the original structure can be preserved for future generations. To view more historic images of iconic local buildings, please visit our Historic Niagara Digital Collections at: http://www.nflibrary.ca/nfplindex/
Cathy Roy is the local history librarian.
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