‘Ottawa’ Egan: 60 Years Ago: the Fiery ‘Cross of God’ That Killed 11 Nuns in Orléans
On May 15, 1956 — 60 years ago Sunday — a CF-100 fighter jet, travelling at 1,100 kilometres an hour, descended crazily from an ungodly height to crash into Villa St-Louis in Orléans along the Ottawa River.
It was a residence for nuns, 11 of whom were among the 15 fatalities.
The blast was colossal, heard as far away as Manotick, and the 15-ton craft left a crater where once a brick building stood. Just as it broke windows two kilometres away, it shattered the city’s sense of order.
How could a new aircraft on a routine mission — not far from its home base of Uplands — manage to strike the only building in a relatively rural area — and have its occupants be members of a religious order dedicated to serving the sick and needy?
Flipping through the archival news coverage, it is evident that the good citizenry was seized with this wretched existential question: if a God, how does this happen?
“God has sent us this cross from the sky,” a nun was quoted in the Citizen. “It fell on our chapel. May His Will be done.” It does scan a little oddly in a secular era, but we hardly have a better answer today, do we?
At the funeral, one of the biggest the city has ever seen, Archbishop M.J. Lemieux asked the mourners at Notre-Dame Basilica: “Is not the sacrifice of these sisters already accepted by God?”, later adding ” … for God who takes with one hand gives generously with the other.”
The tragedy is to remembered Sunday at a memorial built not far from the crash, the present site of a francophone seniors residence that is part of Bruyère Continuing Care. The memorial, a stone’s throw from the river, consists of a large cross with a small, descending aircraft halfway up. There are names on a plaque and 11 stones marking the dead nuns, members of the Sisters of Charity, or so-called Grey Nuns, who were so important in Ottawa’s early history.
(Credit the 410 Wing of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association for marking the event.)
Mo Aller, 86, will be there, playing the lament, Flowers of the Forest, on the bagpipes. A retired major from the Canadian Air Force, he arrived at Uplands only days before the crash with his wife and two young children. A check of his log found he flew the same CF-100 model a couple of days after the crash.
Those aircraft did not have the sophisticated “black-box” equipment of today’s planes, so investigators were left with the theory the two pilots lost consciousness due to an oxygen-supply breakdown during a flight that took them to 33,000 feet.
(To add irony to the tragedy, the two CF-100s that left Uplands that night were “intercepting” a Canadian plane on a harmless routine flight and spent a good part of the airtime burning fuel and practising manoeuvres.)
“How could an aircraft at night, go plummeting down, out of control, and smash into a convent like that?” asked Aller. “It’s just incredible, an unbelievable set of circumstances.”
He knows the plane well and pointed out that the pilots, if in crisis, would normally have ejected. Instead, at top speed, they crashed into a building surrounded by fields, only metres from the Ottawa River. The fuel and ammo on board only made things worse.
The city’s outpouring at the time was considerable.
The papers were full of stories of near-miss and heroism. Some nuns were saved because they were working late downtown at the hospital. Others were bedridden and didn’t stand a chance. They were mostly from Eastern Ontario or West Quebec, and their ages ranged from 21 to 71.
THEN AND NOW
Aerial photo of Villa St-Louis taken nine years after the crash compared to now.
Source: City of Ottawa and Google maps
The Citizen story on May 22 that year said the highest-ranking nun, Rev. Sister St. Laurent Justinian, 71, was buried alone, while the other 10 were paired up and buried in five graves at Notre Dame Cemetery.
Curious, I tried to find the headstones on Tuesday, but could not. A call to the Mother House explained why. At least in the old days, to become a nun was to join a new family and leave behind the former “self”, thus the taking of a new religious name.
So prior to 1979, the sisters were buried in a large plot, below a monument to Elisabeth Bruyère, without individual markers — even those who died in public, spectacular fashion.
But, for a few moments Sunday, above the fast moving river, on the notes of a bagpipe, 11 names shall live again.