Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
May 13, 1913 remains a date very much a part of the cultural identity of Knox Presbyterian Church, whose congregation welcomed members of the greater community on Sunday for a worship service to honour the lives lost on that fateful day.
“Even though no one is around from that time, it is still one of those defining moments in the life of the church,” Stratford Fire Department chaplain and former Knox minister Terry Hastings said about the fire that destroyed the church building erected in 1873.
“They still talk about it as if it’s living memory ... obviously it had a big effect on everyone.”
In the early morning hours of that day more than a century ago, the Knox church foot steeple was hit by lighting, igniting a fire that would quickly spread, engulfing the roof and steeple.
When the firefighters attempted to battle the flames, their hose streams were unable to reach the top of the steeple. A ladder was brought in and was was being moved into position on the west side of the church when the steeple came crashing down.
Killed were Fire Chief Hugh Durkin, Police Chief John McCarthy, Jr., and Const. Matthew Hamilton. A fourth man, firefighter Syd Vanstone, was badly injured.
In addition to the church service, which began with members of the Stratford police, Fire Department, and EMS being led into the building by the Stratford Police Pipes & Drums, Heritage Stratford unveiled a plaque in the church garden commemorating the 100-year-old tragedy.
The idea to mark the anniversary of the fire was put forward by Heritage Stratford chair Dave Gaffney, who in an interview following the dedication ceremony said the overwhelming sense of loss experienced not only by the families of the deceased but the entire community is hard to grasp today.
“For the community that Stratford was at the time, that was a pretty big blow to take,” he said, noting the funeral and procession to the cemetery was attended by an estimated 16,000 people – 3,000 more than lived in the city at the time. The then-mayor declared a day of mourning and all factories and businesses were closed on May 15 as well.
Following the fire, Knox church was rebuilt on the same land it stands today at the corner of Ontario and Waterloo streets in the downtown. It was completed in 1915 and maintained the original Sunday School extension that was built in 1907 and was undamaged in the fire.
On Monday, the Stratford-Perth Museum also paid tribute to the lives lost and the community that rallied together in the aftermath by holding a brief observance. It is also running a special exhibit with images and rare artifacts from the fire until June 15.