Volume 6 Week 27

Tuesay, May 16


Updated Dec. 11

Updated Dec. 11

Phil McNeely
Posted Feb. 12






(Updated 4:30 a.m., May 15)
Ceremony marks 50th anniversary of Villa St-Louis disaster
By Fred Sherwin
Orléans Online

Sister Laura Barbeau was a 24-year-old student nurse when a CF-100 fighter crashed into the former Villa St-Louis in Orléans on May 15, 1956, killing 15 people including the plane's two man crew. Fred Sherwin/Photo

It's been 50 years since a CF-100 fighter jet dropped out of the sky and slammed into the old Villa St-Louis convent and rest home, starting a fire that would claim the lives of 11 sisters of the Grey Nuns of the Cross, a cook and a navy chaplain.

On Sunday, a large crowd gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic event in front of a memorial behind the present day Residence Saint-Louis long term care facility which was built on the same site as the old Villa in Convent Glen North.

The focal point of the memorial is a 20 foot cross adorned with a jet. At its base are 15 stones recovered from the rubble and a plaque with the names of the victims on it, including the pilot and the navigator of the ill-fated plane.

Among those gathered to commemorate the event was Sister Laura Barbeau who would have been in the Villa St-Louis when the tragedy happened if not for a simple twist of fate.

Sister Barbeau was a 24-year-old student nurse at the Ottawa General Hoispital which at that time was on Bruyere Street in Lowertown.

On May 15, 1956 she an 16 other student nurses were supposed to go to the Villa for a two week vacation. Instead they remained in Ottawa for an extra night to watch a play that was being put on by students from the La Salle Academy.

Later that same night just after 10 p.m., the Sisters were awakened by the Mother Superior and told to rush to the hospital. A terrible accident had happened.

By midnight the first survivors started to arrive.

"We tried to comfort the sisters and take care of them as best we could. It's still very vivid in my mind," said Sister Barbeau.

It wasn't until a few days later that the student nurses learned that the rooms they were supposed to stay in were at the centre of where the plane had crashed.

"We would have all died. It was Divine Providence that saved us. It wasn't our time," said Sister Barbeau.

While the exact cause of the crash was never determined, it is widely believed that an oxygen failure caused the crew to pass out.

And while Divine Providence may have saved Sister Barbeau and her fellow student nurses, it also played a hand in the plane hitting the Villa instead of falling into the nearby Ottawa River or the hundreds of acres of empty farmland that surrounded the building at the time.

Eighty-eight year old Theresa Gravel was among the first people who rushed to the Villa when the plane exploded in a ball of fire. Memories of what she wtinessed that night remain with her to this day.

"I still carry it with me," said Gravel who is a resident of the present day long term care facility. "It was very sad and very hard to take. I couldn't do anything to help. There were just too many people."

Gravel's most vivid memory is of a priest giving last rites to Father Richard Ward on the front lawn of the Villa as the building was being consumed by flames. Ward was the chaplain at the rest home and assistant to the Chaplain General of the Royal Canadian Navy.

The other victims were:

Flying Officer Kenneth Thomas, 20

Flying Officer William Schmidt, 26

Miss Aline Lapointe, 40

Sister André-Bernard, 22

Sister Jacqueline Dube, 21

Sister Arrore Bussiere, 30

Sister Maria Berube, 58

Sister Marie-Berthe Lajeunesse, 31

Sister Eliane Simard, 27

Sister Valeda Lefebvre, 67

Sister Emilie Hurtubise, 77

Sister Lumena Genest, 71

Sister Marguerite Guenette, 71

Sister Huguette Blais, 25

The 11 nuns are all buried in unmarked graves at Notre-Dame Cemetary in Ottawa.

The commemoration ceremony was organized by three former members of the RCAF -- Ray Drouin, Bob Clark and Gilbert DesBecquets -- in co-operation with the Sisters of Charity who run the Residence Saint-Louis and the Orléans Legion.

(This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our local business partners.)

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