On the night of 29 May 1914, the SS Empress of Ireland was struck by a Norwegian collier on a foggy night in the icy waters of the St. Lawrence River. 1,012 of the 1,477 persons on board perished, including 167 Salvationists traveling to the Salvation Army’s third international congress in London, England. The dead included many of the top leaders of the Salvation Army in Canada and all but nine members of the original Canadian Staff Band. The disaster was a crippling blow to the Salvation Army that has left its mark in the Canada and Bermuda Territory to this very day.
Service at Mount Pleasant Cemetery
On a bright, sunny afternoon, 25 May 2014, Salvationists, friends and family met at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this tremendous tragedy. Though the event has been forgotten to a large extent, the Salvation Army continues to hold an annual memorial service to remember the members that were lost.
This year, the present-day Canadian Staff Band (Bandmaster John Lam) was honored to participate in this significant occasion. A good crowd was present, including visitors and descendants, who had travelled from England and the United States, of some of the victims.
Led by Colonel Mark Tillsley, chief secretary of the Canada and Bermuda Territory, and other members of the territorial cabinet, the service included appropriate songs and Scripture readings, as well as an address by the territorial commander, Commissioner Brian Peddle. Staff Bandsman Steve Pavey spoke of his own experience, researching the story for his historical novel, Pursuit of Grace Aboard the Empress of Ireland. In retelling the tale, he cited specific instances of Salvationists who lived up to their Christian calling on that dreadful night and the impact their witness had on generations yet to come.
Commissioner Brian Peddle spoke of the legacy left behind by those who perished on that fateful night, recalling the impact their deaths had on the young Salvation Army in Canada and why it is important to remember them. Appropriately, the Staff Band presented an arrangement by Noel Brooks of the last song their 1914 predecessors played as the great ship pulled away from Quebec City, God Be with You Till We Meet Again. Executive officer Major Kevin Metcalf represented the band as he laid a wreath at the base of the monument honoring all Salvationists who died in the wreck of the Empress of Ireland.
Official Ceremonies in Rimouski, Quebec
On Thursday, 29 May 2014, an ensemble of seven members of the Canadian Staff Band traveled to Rimouski, Quebec, to take part in four days of official ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Empress of Ireland tragedy. The ensemble, consisting of Bandmaster Lam, Executive Officer Metcalf, Sherie Keogh, Rick Allington, Steve Pavey, Craig Lewis and Scott Gross, represented the Salvation Army at various memorial services, playing music and paying tribute to the Staff Band’s 1914 predecessors, so many of whom perished in the disaster. The ensemble was accompanied by Colonels Mark and Sharon Tillsley, who led and spoke in some of the services.
Events included a visit to the Empress of Ireland Museum in Rimouski for the unveiling of a commemorative work of art commissioned for the 100th anniversary. The group also played at a memorial service for Canadian Pacific, the company that owned the ship, held at the site of a mass grave that holds the remains of 20 known and 68 unknown persons. A large group of immediate descendants of the victims was present.
On Saturday, the ensemble played for a reception hosted by the Salvation Army for both descendants of victims and the general public. Steve Pavey gave a presentation and Major David Ivany, a descendant of one of the original staff bandsmen, gave a family tribute. The ensemble also provided music for a Sunday morning mass at the local Roman Catholic church.