Memorial held for children at orphanage who died in Halifax Explosion

HALIFAX – They came to the orphanage because their families could not care for them. Then, disaster struck.

The wards of the Halifax Protestant Orphanage were as young as three and as old as 13 when a massive explosion tore through Halifax in 1917.

A century later, dozens of mourners gathered at their gravesite in a cemetery in Halifax’s north end on Sunday to ensure that even though their lives were cut tragically short, the children would not be forgotten.

“The other victims that are here would have descendents, they would have families and things like that who could pay homage to them and remember them,” Rev. Randy Townsend of the St. John’s Anglican Church said in an interview.

“The children of the orphanage wouldn’t have anyone. They died as young children with no families, and so we thought we would just take time out of the busyness of our lives on this day to come together and remember them.”

About two dozen children and three caretakers at the orphanage were among the 2,000 people killed in the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

They were laid to rest in St. John’s Cemetery in a plot marked with two aging obelisks, two gravestones, and on Sunday, a mini Canadian flag as a crowd sang hymns and held a moment of silence in their honour.

Under an overcast sky, a bell rang as each of the victims’ names were called out.

Townsend reflected on the trials the children must have faced growing up in an institution in the early 20th century, raised by staff members rather than a loving family.

“The lives of the children perhaps were not filled with hope,” Townsend told the crowd. “Their hope may have been that one day they would be adopted out to a loving family, or that their work assignment when they became teenagers would be easy on their life. But that was not to be so.”

He imagined what the children may have felt like on Dec. 6, 1917 as they scrambled to the dining hall to eat breakfast and get an early start on their chores, but their morning routine was interrupted by the sound of a clamour coming from Halifax harbour.

Fearing the city was under attack during wartime, a caretaker ushered 30 children into the basement, Townsend said, hoping it would be safe. Only six of them survived, he said.

The blast — the largest human-caused explosion before the first atomic bomb — followed a collision in Halifax harbour between the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Norwegian-flagged Belgian relief vessel Imo.

As catastrophe consumed swaths of the city, there would be many more orphans in need of a home, said Gail Gardiner of Veith House, a community centre that helped host Sunday’s service.

Gardiner said the children’s organization traces its origins back to the founding of the Halifax Protestant Orphanage in 1857, and has inherited its history and mission.

“We feel it’s very important to remember the stories of these children … and to always make sure that’s talked about,” she said in an interview. “I think it makes us more resilient as community.”

The orphanage was rebuilt shortly after the explosion and operated for more than four decades before it was shut down around the late 1960s, Gardiner said.

She said Veith House was set up to support the children who were streamed into Nova Scotia’s foster care program and still maintains the original property where the Halifax Protestant Orphanage first stood.

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