Located more than 3000 miles, or 5000 km, away from its closest point to the Western Front, residents of the Canadian harbour town of Halifax, Nova Scotia – those who were not part of the 424,000-strong Canadian Expeditionary Force – must have felt immune from the dangers of the first World War. But on the morning of 6 December 1917, a collision between two ships in the harbour – one carrying aid and another high-explosives for the war effort – resulted in an explosion and tsunami that wiped out much of the town’s north end. Some 2000 people were killed and a further 9000 injured. The 100th anniversary is being commemorated with a memorial service and concert in a church that was itself destroyed in the explosion.
At the time, the explosion was the largest human-made blast that the world had experienced. The blast cloud reached a measured height of 2.25 miles – some 3,600 metres or 11,811 feet. Four churches were completely destroyed in the blast – including St Mark’s, which lost some 200 of its parishioners in the blast.
Thought to have been taken around 15-20 seconds after the blast, from an estimated 13 miles (21 km) away, this photo shows the size of the blast cloud which reached a measured height of 3,600 metres (11,811 feet or 2.25 miles).
Photo: Canada’s National Library and Archives
The church was rebuilt, and its current rector, the Revd John K Morrell, said that the explosion left its mark on in the memories of its citizens. The current church treasurer’s mother was only a few months old when the explosion occurred. She contracted pneumonia and wasn’t expected to survive. Her family have kept the swaddling blanket that helped keep her warm throughout her sickness, he says.
In the coming days, the re-built St Mark’s is commemorating the catastrophe with a memorial service and concert.
The other churches destroyed in the explosion were St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, which – like St Mark’s – has been rebuilt; and a Presbyterian and a Methodist churches. Those two congregations united in a newly-built United Memorial Church in 1921. Both United Memorial and St Joseph’s Church have closed in recent years, leaving St Mark’s Anglican Church as the last in the area to bear witness to the explosion.
Earlier this month, it held an afternoon memorial service attended by more than 270 people, including the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Arthur Leblanc, who read a text from the Old Testament in French. Ecumenical guests representing the three other destroyed churches also read Bible texts.
Wreaths were laid in honour of the destroyed churches and their parishioners, as well as police officers, firefighters, soldiers and sailors who responded to the explosion, and for sailors killed during the war.
A band composed of local high school students played music from the time of the First World War and accompanied the hymns, and a mixed choir sang three anthems. Morrell himself showed a 16-minute slide presentation on Halifax before, during and after the explosion, and presented a 100th anniversary prayer he had written.
On the day of the anniversary, the church will play host to an evening concert of music and readings, which will feature the North Street Singers, a local choir, singing songs from the time of the First World War.
There will also be hymns and a number of readings, from diaries and other documents from the era.