Older Sarnians will recall a time when city churches rarely locked their doors.
It was that general sense of security that, on Aug. 11, 1963, allowed an 11-year-old boy to walk into St. Paul’s United Church and set seven separate fires burning throughout the building.
A May 15 column about its imminent closing (“Historic South Ward church about to close its doors”) reminded me of that painful episode.
Four young boys spotted smoke coming from the church and alerted the vacationing pastor’s 19-year-old daughter, Ruth Ann Yardley. She and the boys struggled heroically to put out most of the fires, but the seventh was out of control.
Arriving firefighters sensed the now fully engulfed structure was doomed. One of them was a member of the church.
George LeNeve knew the middle of three beautiful stained glass windows on the Emma Street side of St. Paul’s was special.
Known as the Hall-Anderson window, the 25-foot high artifact was dedicated to two beloved former ministers and treasured by the congregation.
As a crowd of startled parishioners looked on, LeNeve ordered firefighters armed with pike poles to shatter the two stained glass windows flanking the Hall-Anderson window, and begin a dangerous fight to save it.
The church walls were an inferno by then, but firefighter Dick Ford braved the heat to remain close and, risking injury from collapsing walls, aimed streams of cooling water on the endangered window.
The church, sadly, was lost, but parishioners were quick to credit the bravery and professionalism of the Sarnia Fire Department for saving the memorial window.
That was the first time Sarnia firefighters saved it, but it wasn’t the last.
The parishioners of St. Paul’s were determined to rebuild the church on the same site at Emma and Devine streets. Architectural plans were unveiled the following year, in 1964, and they were published in the daily newspaper.
But firefighters were aghast when they saw the design because it failed to include the massive glass sheet they’d fought so valiantly to save.
The firefighters wrote to the editor of the Sarnia Observer voicing their concern for the omission – one that was quickly echoed by startled parishioners.
The plans were restructured, and the Hall-Anderson window has lived on as a church feature for another 58 years.
It’s often said the pen is mightier than the sword. Sarnia firefighters proved the pen can be just as powerful as a blast from a fire hose.
Got an interesting tale? Contact columnist Phil Egan at [email protected]