Halifax church commemorates 1917 explosion

Halifax Explosion victims recuperate at the YMCA Emergency Hospital. Photo: Courtesy of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Photographed by W.G. MacLaughlin, MP207.1.184.216.
Published November 21, 2017

Nearly a hundred years ago, an explosion destroyed much of Halifax’s north end, including St. Mark’s Anglican Church. This November and December, the church, since rebuilt, is commemorating the catastrophe with a memorial service and concert.

On the morning of December 6, 1917, as the First World War was raging in Europe, two ships collided in Halifax Harbour. One was laden with high explosives for the war, and the result of their collision was the most powerful human-made blast the world had ever witnessed up to that time.

About 2,000 people died and an estimated 9,000 were injured after the blast and subsequent tsunami.

The explosion also completely destroyed four north-end churches, including St. Mark’s, says its current rector, the Rev. John K. Morrell. Some 200 St. Mark’s parishioners were among the dead.

The explosion has left its mark on the city, both physically and in the memories of its citizens, Morrell says. The current church treasurer’s mother was only a few months old and contracted pneumonia in the explosion’s aftermath and wasn’t expected to survive. Her family still has the swaddling blanket that helped keep her warm throughout her sickness, he says.

The Rev. John K. Morrell, rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Halifax, says about 200 of the church’s parishioners were killed in the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917.

St. Mark’s and the Roman Catholic St. Joseph’s Church were rebuilt, and the parishes of the destroyed Presbyterian and Methodist churches united in a newly-rebuilt United Memorial Church in 1921 (four years before the merger that created the United Church of Canada). However, United Memorial and St. Joseph’s Church have both closed in the last few years.

The last church left to bear witness, St. Mark’s, is hosting this year two events commemorating the explosion: an afternoon memorial service, which it held November 5, and an evening concert of music and readings December 6.

More than 270 people, Morrell says, attended the memorial service, including Nova Scotia Lt.-Gov. Arthur Leblanc, who read a text from the Old Testament (Wisdom 3:1-8) in French. Ecumenical guests representing the three other destroyed churches also read Bible texts. Wreaths were laid in honour of the destroyed churches and their parishioners, as well as police officers, firefighters, soldiers and sailors who responded to the explosion, and for sailors killed during the war. A band composed of local high school students played music from the time of the First World War and accompanied the hymns, he says, and a mixed choir sang three anthems. Morrell himself showed a 16-minute slide presentation on Halifax before, during and after the explosion, and presented a 100th anniversary prayer he had written.

The actual anniversary event in the evening of December 6, Morrell says, will feature the North Street Singers, a local choir, singing songs from the time of the First World War.

There will also be hymns and a number of readings, from diaries and other documents from the era.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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