This is the story of 12-year Velma LaBranche who boarded at a convent school. The day of the fire her mother had just some up to visit. By the end of the day mother and daughter were fighting for their lives.

Convent students in 1922, prior to the Great Fire

"The day Mother came up from Sturgeon Falls it was particularly hazy because of forest fires burning along the railway lines north. We were sitting in the convent parlour when Mother Superior came in and told us that we’d both have to hurry into the church because town authorities had warned strong winds were speeding the forest flames toward the town. Everyone was to head for the lake if things got worse.

After we got to the church the fire spread even there, so we fled – students, nuns, my mother and I. We ran to the lake. By this time the wind was so strong that the fire caught some of the nuns’ veils. They were tearing them off their heads as fast as they could, and I remember thinking how often my school chums and I would have given anything to catch the nuns without their veils so we could see whether they had any hair or not.

The water in the lake was freezing cold in October in Northern Ontario. My mother and I clung to each other in water up to our necks. All around our heads patches of fire the size of doors and windows were blown by a gale force wind. The only way we could save ourselves was to duck under the water’s surface, stay under for half a minute, pop up and get a breath, and then keep doing the same thing all over again. As soon as mother would see flames blowing over us, she’d catch me by the hair and push me under. I remember thinking: ‘So this is the way I’m going to die. I’m dreaming..’ Yet we were still praying within ourselves the winds would change.".

Suddenly the prayers were answered. The wind changed direction completely, shifting to the north

See also Haileybury Fire of 1922

Williams, Lorraine (O’Donnell). “Velma (LaBranche) O’Donnell’s Story” The Great Fire of 1922.
Compiled by The 75th Anniversary of the Great Fire of 1922 Committee.
Photo Credits:
Rose Leskew. From The Great Fire of 1922,
Compiled by: The 75th Anniversary of the Great Fire of 1922 Committee [Convent students in 1922, prior to the Great Fire]
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre [Haileybury Convent and Church after Fire]

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