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Publication: Gazette (Montreal), The add link
Issue: 4 April 2017
Title: Honour for heroic Montreal principal Sarah Maxwell long overdue
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Opinion: Honour for heroic Montreal principal Sarah Maxwell long overdue


Sarah Maxwell is a legend among this city?s local historians, particularly those who focus on Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. While I am not normally an advocate of changing the names of public venues, I welcome an initiative being taken by the borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, in conjunction with the local history society, to rename a park in her honour. The park in question is Dézéry-Lafontaine ? a small green space located between Préfontaine and Dézéry streets, and not to be confused with the bigger and better known Parc La Fontaine.

Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, popularly known as HoMa by the many youthful residents who inhabit it, has a long and colourful history. Some of it, however, is indeed unfortunate, yet nevertheless inspiring. The story of Sarah Maxwell falls into this category.

In February 1907, Maxwell was the 31-year-old principal of a modest, working-class school on Prefontaine Street, just north of Ste-Catherine Street E. Known simply as Hochelaga School, the Protestant facility served the neighbourhood?s English-speaking children, most of whom had fathers working at the nearby port or railyards.

On Feb. 26 of that year, a fire broke out in the 1890 structure, which one Montreal journal had previously labelled ?a death trap.? While some pupils and teachers managed to escape the blaze, others remained trapped in a second-storey classroom. It was there that Sarah Maxwell handed one pupil after another to firemen atop ladders. Ignoring their calls to save herself, Maxwell, enveloped in a thick, black, toxic smoke, could be seen to the last desperately shuffling children out the window to waiting firefighters. Suddenly, there were no more to be seen.

When the conflagration was finally quelled, Maxwell and 16 youngsters between the ages of three and eight were found dead on the floor of the classroom in question.

In the days that followed the tragedy, the City of Montreal promised melancholic citizens that a memorial of some sort would be put in place somewhere to cite the remarkable heroism of the courageous educator, as well as to commemorate the lives of the young children who perished. In the last analysis, it was just that ? a promise, and nothing was ever done by the municipality, although the school board named the rebuilt school in her honour. It no longer exists.

One would think that in that context, the proposal of both the borough and the local history society would be good to go. Sadly, however, that is not the case, as it seems that the civic bureaucracy is insisting that the proponents of the plan locate descendants of Sarah Maxwell in order to determine whether they agree with the idea or not.

It?s hard to understand why this is necessary here. Maxwell was unmarried (generally a problem when looking for descendants) and has been dead for more than 110 years. Descendants of her brothers and sisters may very well be scattered throughout the world, some perhaps totally ignorant of their relative?s heroism.

I somehow doubt that Mayor Jean Drapeau sought approval from the progeny of Victor Hugo when his administration named a newly created inner city street after him in 1986, so I wonder what is going on here. As both a genealogist and family historian, I know full well that tracking down distant relatives is more often than not next to an impossible task.

It is for me mind-boggling that a municipal culture that has shown in the past little difficulty eliminating significant, century-old place names from the urban landscape, finds itself incapable of endorsing a name change to a minor park without posing insurmountable obstacles.

Both the borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and the Atelier d?histoire Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve are to be commended for having taken this magnanimous action.

It is to be hoped that even if descendants are not found, municipal officials will respect a commitment made by other Montrealers,­ albeit 110 years ago.

Robert N. Wilkins is a local historian and author of Montreal 1909.