Rees recalls Empress of Ireland

MAY 29, 1914

The city of Toronto was unusually somber. It was June 6, 1914 and the drums of Salvation Army bands beat in slow cadence as the great procession of mourners marched behind horse-drawn hearses, bearing Salvation Army flag-draped coffins, making their way to Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Thousands lined the funeral route in respectful, silent tribute. The coffins bore the bodies of only 17 of the 167 Salvationists, officers and soldiers, who were drowned when the Canadian Pacific liner, Empress of Ireland, sank in the St. Lawrence River on Friday, May 29, 1914. About a thousand passengers and crew drowned in this, the greatest peacetime tragedy in Canadian history.

May 29 became known as the Army’s “Black Friday.” The Salvation Army in Canada had lost almost the whole headquarters’ staff, as well as 29 of the 41-member Canadian Staff Band. The loss was significant. The territorial commander, Commission-er David Rees, along with Mrs. Commissioner Ruth Rees and children Captain Harding Rees, Captain Ruth Rees and Corps Cadet Annie Rees; the chief secretary, Colonel Sidney Maidment and his wife, Mrs. Colonel Harriet Maidment, as well as the secretary for immigration Major David Creighton and Mrs. Major Bertha Creighton were among the scores of victims. All the Salvationist passengers were making their way to London, England, as were Salvation Army soldiers from every part of the globe, for an International Congress under the esteemed leadership of General Bramwell Booth.

Eighty-nine years later, unaware of the significance of the day, the city of Toronto was unusually noisy. Yet there was a sense of serenity and peace, tucked away not far from the entrance of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, as the refrains of familiar hymn tunes were played by The Salvation Army North Toronto Commun-ity Church band.

There were no thousands of people gathered to recall the events of that fateful night. Yet they came, relatives of victims and survivors, Salvationists and friends, and the curious, to gather in solemn tribute before the Empress of Ireland plinth, for the annual memorial service which was conducted under the auspices of The Salvation Army Historical Society (Canada and Bermuda) and the George Scott Railton Heritage Centre.

Guest speaker Lt. Colonel Della Rees of Santa Rosa, Calif., presented in her message a historical glimpse of her grandfather, Commissioner David Rees. The colonel’s message was enlightening, as well as challenging. Rees had grown up with the story and events of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, as well as the personal impact of seven family members being promoted to Glory from the ship. It was a solemn moment, as the band played “Servant of God, well done!” when Colonel Rees and her cousin, B/M Fred Creighton, placed the wreath in front of the plinth, in memory of all Salvationists who perished on the Empress of Ireland. Creighton’s daughter, Donna Dolan and her son Andrew placed a wreath in memory of the 30-plus children who died in the Empress of Ireland tragedy.

As in past memorial services, despite the despair of the past, there prevailed “an ever present hope” for the future and that hope buoyed up the spirits of those who still mourn the loss of loved ones.
Among the many relatives and friends present for the memorial service was Rees’ cousin, and the brother to B/M Fred Creighton, author David Creighton, who has written a most interesting book about the Empress of Ireland and the Creighton family, Losing the Empress: Personal Journey.

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