Posted by: Cornwall Community Museum | November 13, 2013

Artifact of the Week. Painting of St. Raphael’s Church before the fire.


A oil painting of St.Raphael’s Church before the fire.  Signed “IS”.  If anyone knows who the artist is please let me know.

The painting was probably done in the 1960s, but could have been done after the fire destroyed the structure on August 11, 1970.

This painting was acquired by an antique” picker” from a a retired priest in Long Sault.  I found it at MacHaffie’s Flea Market in Morrisburg in 2008.

Size:60.3 cm x 47 cm.

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St. Raphael’s Parish is rightly called the “cradle of Catholicity in Ontario.”  The parish dates from 1786 when 500 Catholic Scottish Highlanders settled in Glengarry  under the guidance of Reverend Alexander MacDonell.

Until work started in 1821 on this 1,000 seat stone structure, the religious services were held in the “Blue Chapel.”

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Church interior.  Ornately carved wooden rafters were used to hold the ceiling rather than pillars.

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St. Rapheal’s ruins.  On Tuesday, August 11, 1970, searing flames engulfed the interior of the 150 year old church in less than 3 hours.

The fire was discovered around 1 am by rectory guest Florence Macdonald.  Fabricated with wooden rafters rather than pillars and wooden pegs in the absence of forged mails, the fires appears to have started in the ceiling over the sanctuary from a short circuit and spread rapidly to encompass the entire length of the building.

Just returning home from hospital after a heart attack, pastor Rev. Michael J. O’Brien was at first only told that there was a light in the church.  Not content to remain idle,  he went to investigate.

On his return he said “Get the Blessed Sacrament out of the church.”  He was then whisked off to Williamstown, never looking back.

With the alarm now sounded, fire brigades from Williamstown, Alexandria, Lancaster and Martintown appeared to fight the inferno.  Sending sparks nearly a kilometre to the west, and with flames visible from as far away as Alexandria, it was, however, too late.  An account of the fire said the flames “had taken firm hold of the ancient timbers and a shortage of water limited the firemen to a successful saving of the nearby presbytery.”

At 2:30 am the belfry and steeple collapsed quietly into the church.  Reverend Bernard Cameron of Williamstown remarked at the time that the three bells “refused to toll the death knell of the church as they fell.”  Today the distorted remains of the largest bell sit inside the entrance to the ruins as mute testimony to the ferocity of the blaze.

©Cornwall Community Museum

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