A tragedy at Saint-Timothée (par Pierrette Brière et Josée Tétreault)
It gave us shivers when we learned about a terrible drama that took place at Saint-Timothée in 1952 when eight members of the Tétreault family died in a fire in their home..
Oliva and his family
Oliva Tétreault was born at Saint-Sébastien in Iberville County on May 17, 1906. The son of Auguste Tétreault and Joséphine Fortin, he was baptized two days later and named Charles Edouard Oliva Eugène Tétreau.
He married Diane Bernard at Saint-Mathieu de Beloeil on May 28, 1940. On February 20, 1941, they had a child at Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal, but the infant did not survive. Then, Diane Bernard herself passed away at the same hospital on May 1. Oliva was a widower at age 35, less than a year after his wedding.
At the same institution where they attempted to save the lives of his loved ones, Oliva got acquainted with Madeleine Deschamps, the daughter of Georges Deschamps and Marie-Anne Marchesseau. The 22 year old nurse was born in Saskatchewan on August 13, 1921. They were married at Notre-Dame de Grâce church in Montreal on September 19, 1942.
During the next ten years, they had eight children, five boys and three girls. The family settled at Saint-Timothée de Beauharnois and lived under conditions that bordered on poverty. Oliva, who had been a farmer and then a civil servant, worked as an insurance agent and eventually started a restaurant business called the Opiro. Throughout her numerous pregnancies, Madeleine continued to work as a nurse to supplement the family income and to meet the basic needs of the family.
On February 18, 1948, as witnessed by notary Joseph-Médard Leduc, Oliva, now an insurance agent, bought a property in the village of Saint-Timothée which in-cluded several lots, a house and a barn. On the following September 8th, a contract was passed at the same notary rescinding the deal and returning the property to the seller. Oliva continues selling insurance, but one wonders about his financial condition. Neighbors and friends indicate that the family was not rolling in money.
During the frigid night of January 30, 1952, at four o’clock in the morning seven children were sleeping peacefully in their beds in an upstairs room while the parents and the nine month old baby slept in the next room.
Realizing that the temperature was dropping, the mother got up to adjust the oil heater that was at the foot of the children’s beds so as to warm their room. A few minutes later, flame burst out of the heater. The parents rushed to the children. Realizing the imminent danger, Oliva got out of the house asking his wife to hand him the children through the window. The oldest, Pierre, was the first to leave. Almost at the same instant, an explosion broke out and flames spread throughout the room. The father tried to go back but the fire was so intense as to make access impossible. He managed to enter the house and ran to his bedroom to get the crib where the baby was already being stroked by the flames.
A neighbor was awakened by barking dogs and noticed to her horror that the Tétreault residence and restaurant were on fire. She saw a man who was screaming and running around the inferno, and then saw a crib in the snow. Her son rushed out and brought forth the baby whose face and hands were partially burned. Another neighbor brought her to the hospital with the tiny vic-tim.
Oliva was also brought to the hospital with burns to the face and arms while neighbors took in young Pierre, the only child in the family to have escaped the tragedy. Little Marie-Gisèle died from her wounds the following day.
The house was situated about 25 feet from the river, but the firefighters at the scene did not have hoses long enough to be able to draw water to fight the fire. In less than an hour, the mother and seven of her children were burned alive while the father and his son were helpless to bring about a rescue.
The body of Madeleine Deschamps, 31 years old, was found with a child in her arms next to the beds where the other little ones were asleep never to awaken. She left this life in a supreme effort to save the lives of her children.
Life after the drama
The charred remains of the victims were placed in a single coffin. The funeral was held the next day at the cathedral in Valleyfield. Oliva was in attendance, supported by his father, Auguste Tétreault, as well as several relatives and friends, all in shock and overcome with grief.
Oliva Tétreault surely went through many difficulties following the tragedy. Twice a widower by the age of 46, he never remarried. He died in Montreal at the age of 57 on March 14, 1964, a few days after the joyful news of the birth of a grandchild. His body is buried in the parish cemetery at Saint-Mathieu de Beloeil, the same parish where his first marriage had been blessed.
This tragedy which claimed a mother and seven of her eight children gives rise to deep reflection on the fragility of life as well as on the strength and courage that allow us to overcome what may seem insurmountable odds. We wish all the happiness possible to families who have lived through such tragedies. May we cherish our loved ones and treasure the present moment!
Bulletin de la Société historique et culturelle de Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu - Gens de Saint-Antoine de septembre 2008;
Journal La Patrie 30, 31 janvier et 1er février 1952;
Journal Le Canada Français 19 mars 1964;
Bureau de la publicité des droits - Index aux immeubles;
Généalogie Québec - Mariages et décès 1926-1996,
Registres du Fonds Drouin, Le Nécrologue du Groupe-Nécro (Pierres tombales); Membres des familles Deschamps et Tétreault.