The Explosion at St. John’s Cathedral
AUGUST 24, 1958
by Derwyn Crozier-Smith
An explosion occurred during the Sunday service at the Cathedral on August 24, 1958. Here’s the story as told through contemporary reports:
The report of the Minister’s Churchwarden, Dr. A. L. Swanson, to the annual meeting of the congregation on January 22, 1957 refers to the installation of a new heating unit for the Cathedral:
During 1956, it became evident that the old boiler in the Cathedral was beyond any hope of repair. Accordingly, the vestry arranged for the installation of a new gas fired, cast iron boiler to replace the original tube boiler which had been installed when the church was built. The new unit is much smaller and also more efficient than the former boiler. We were able to retain the gas burner from the old heating unit and to re-install it with the new boiler for a total cost of $3,100.
The Star Phoenix for August 25, 1958 reported that an explosion occurred during Sunday services the previous day. (SP article is attached and you should read it before proceeding). There were minor injuries to one person, significant damage to the boiler room, Lady Chapel, choir room and adjacent areas. The Sunday service was paused briefly and then continued but the effects were a concern for the congregation for several years.
At the annual meeting of the congregation on January 21, 1959 the warden, Dr. Swanson reported:
Following the serious explosion in our new furnace in the cathedral on August 24th, there was considerable damage done to the furnace room, the Lady Chapel, the choir vestry and to adjacent areas. Repairs which were absolutely essential were carried out forthwith in order that regular church services could carry on. However, much of the extensive damage could not be dealt with until the necessary insurance adjustments were made. There was considerable delay in effecting an adjustment and only very recently have we received the money from the insurance companies concerned. For this reason, some repairs, which are quite necessary but were not absolutely vital. Have been delayed and will be proceeded with early in 1959. For the further information of the congregation, the assessment of the total damages was eventually agreed to at a total of $4,302.69. The repairs to the boiler room amounted to $287.00; repairs to the boiler and furnace amounted to $937.69. These repairs, along with some repairs to the choir vestry were proceeded with at once. Top priority should now be given to completing the repairs to the Lady Chapel.
There was likely some damage to the new organ which had been installed in 1957. In a letter to Mr. Harry Gore of Winnipeg on January 27, 1959, Dean S. A. R. Wood expresses his concerns and frustration about the poor service experienced in getting the instrument repaired. Gore is apparently the local service representative for an organ service company.
The time has now come when, if we are to make any claim on our insurance coverage for the explosion damage, we must get the work done and have the whole thing cleared up. We cannot go on with the organ as it is, and we cannot wait until Easter to have the work done and claim against the insurance company.
The Dean goes on to say that he would be hard pressed to give a good reference for the company:
It would appear to me that even in emergencies such as that caused by our explosion your firm is not providing sufficient men to take care of the territory for which you are responsible, and I feel that the time has come for you to pass along to head office this complaint.
Repairs moved along slowly as indicated in the report of the Warden, J. S. M. Allely, to the annual meeting on January 20, 1960:
The repair of damage which was suffered by the Lady Chapel in the explosion of 1958 has constituted a renovation and remodeling which leaves us with a greatly improved and beautiful place of worship. We are grateful to Mr. A. A. Myers who donated a goodly portion of the effort and expense involved. The redecoration of the Cathedral interior which was necessitated by the explosion we have decided to postpone for some time. The funds available for this purpose will in the meantime be used for other purposes.
Can we assume from this that the boarding placed over the east window in the Lady Chapel, which has just been removed, was placed there as a result of this explosion and that the damage to the glass and surrounding terra cotta may have been a result of the blast? There remains the as yet unsubstantiated story that the window was covered earlier, perhaps when the stucco was applied to the Cathedral’s interior brick walls in 1954 and that the reason had to do with dissatisfaction with the lighting in the Chapel.
There also remains the mystery of the “hump” at the entrance to the sanctuary and high altar. Could this be a remnant of the explosion that was not repaired or is there some other plausible explanation?
This is another chapter in the yet to be written booklet: “Cathedral Secrets”.