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Sarah Maxwell

There is no class of women in Canada upon whom a greater responsibility is cast than that laid upon the teachers in our public schools. The educational requirements are maintained at a high standard, so that several years of diligent study are necessary in order to acquire the desired qualification. Their duties are most exacting and call for the prudent exercise of tact, self-control and patience, in order to maintain discipline and at the same time preserve the good-will of the pupils. We are familiar with the trials they daily undergo, but are slow to acknowledge our appreciation of the services rendered by them. The registers of every district bear testimony to the un-selfish devotion to duty of the young women who have taught in the schools. Floods and snowdrifts may render the roads almost impassable, but the faithful teacher will be found regularly at her desk during all kinds of weather. Rarely do we find her wanting in practical sympathy in case of sickness or distress. We find her liberally contributing from her slender purse to almost every charitable cause. She freely gives her time and talents to the many organizations in connection with our churches and philanthropic institutions. How often has our attention been called to some bright young woman who, overcome by the nervous strain or repeated exposure, has been forced reluctantly to resign her position! Broken down in health, she has retired from the profession she adorned and passed out of our life. Had we taken the trouble to examine the circumstances and to follow her career, perhaps for a few months only, we might have been awakened to a realization of the fact that that young life had been sacrificed for our children.

We frequently hear reports of acts of hero-ism of our women teachers, but there appears to be no provision for obtaining or preserving the particulars. If some organized effort were made to collect from all parts of Canada the records of those instances in which these de-voted women have voluntarily risked their own lives for the safety of the little ones committed to their care, I venture to assert that the list would be a long one.

The death of no single individual has been more universally mourned in recent years than that of Sarah Maxwell, principal of the Hochelaga School, Montreal. She found herself face to face with death in its most terrible form, yet her sole anxiety appeared to be for the safety of the little ones, not only those in her charge, but in the other departments of the school as well. It may be that she did not take full advantage of all the means of escape that were within reach, but in passing judgment upon her conduct we must bear in mind the fact that, without a moment's warning, she found herself placed in a most perilous situation that threatened the lives of hundreds of frantic and helpless pupils. With marvelous courage and devotion, she steadfastly refused to leave the burning building while those who looked to her for protection were still in danger, and she heroically gave her life for the tender children she loved so well. Truly of her it may be said: "Greater love hath no man than this."

Following is the story of her death as told by a prominent citizen of Montreal, who was an eyewitness of the fire:

"On the morning of Tuesday, February 26, 1907, Sarah Maxwell, principal of the Hochelaga School, Montreal, gave her life rather than leave the helpless children of her kindergarten to perish by fire. Seventeen of her charges were burned to death with her. She could easily have escaped after she had handed to safety all the children who were near her, but just as the firemen made ready to escort her to safety, she cried out, 'There must be some more children inside,' sprang back from the window, and rushed through the smoke and heat in the attempt to find the missing children. The firemen instantly followed her, but it was impossible to continue and live. Nothing more was seen of Miss Maxwell, her charred body, and those of the dead children, being found the next day.

'What happened on that morning in February can never be wholly known, because it would appear that Miss Maxwell herself was the first to note the presence of smoke and to seek for the cause. It is fair to suppose that she underestimated the danger, for the fire spread with terrible rapidity. The other teachers, observing the smoke, started the fire drill, but the children were driven back by the rapidly rising smoke and flame. Some of them lost their way and perished behind a door they could not open. Meantime the teachers had gone back, opened the windows, and sought relief there. Miss Campbell, one of the teachers, was awarded a gold medal for her coolness and courage in face of the imminent danger. Closing the doors and opening the windows, she succeeded in saving all of her class. Miss Maxwell, meanwhile, had gone to the topmost floor, where the kindergarten class was held. There were delays before any relief was available. The windows were thirty feet from the ground. Fire escapes there were none. Precious minutes were lost before the attention of those outside was attracted, and when the firemen did come the condition was desperate. When the ladders went up, Miss Maxwell stood to her post until all the children near her were handed out. Then, when it seemed to be her own turn to leave, and the anxious crowd in the street were waiting for her to descend, it was borne in upon 'her that there were still other children needing her aid, and with the words, 'There must be more children inside!' she darted back, without an instant's hesitation, to duty and to death. She had found another child, and had struggled to reach the window with it. Their dead bodies were found together."

The devotion of the teacher, as exemplified in this final act of sacrifice, was but of a piece with her conduct in daily life. She gave her whole mind and heart to the service of the children, and there seems to have existed between her and them a perfect understanding. The grief for those school children who were lost was tempered by admiration for the teacher's heroic conduct, and the sympathy of the whole community was manifested by the presence of thousands who marched in procession on the day of the funeral. More, the people of Montreal determined that the salutary example should not be lost to memory, and a voluntary subscription was promptly organized, to which people from all parts of Canada contributed the magnificent sum of ten thousand dollars. When the fund was complete it was felt that, as Miss Maxwell had given her life for the love of the little ones, the proper way to honor her memory was to join her name to a work designed for the relief of suffering children, and accordingly the money was used, with the unanimous consent of the contributors, to endow a wing of a children's hospital. The Protestant School Commissioners of Montreal, moreover, determined upon another form of recognition. The school building in which Sarah Maxwell and her pupils lost their lives, as the official inquiry designated, was lacking in many essentials. A new school building has been erected, in the construction of which all has been done that knowledge and forethought could suggest for the benefit of the children and to provide for their safety in case of sudden danger, and it has been called the Sarah Maxwell School.

Heroines of Canadian History, By W. S. Herrington, 1910


Canadian Heroines

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