The mystery of the two plaques and Minnie Gallaher’s war

Eleanor Dunn

When St.-Paul’s-Eastern United Church closed its doors at the end of June 2021, its artifacts, including memorial plaques, found a new home in MacKay United Church in New Edinburgh.

There were two plaques memorializing World War 1 dead. Why two? Some historical research was undertaken; it was discovered that one of the plaques listed the names of those members of the St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church who made the ultimate sacrifice, and the other bore the names of the fallen members of the Eastern Methodist Church congregation.

In order to effect wartime economies, the two congregations, which were neighbours in Sandy Hill, started working together and sharing facilities in 1915, with activity centred in the St. Paul’s Presbyterian building on Daly Avenue. Eastern Methodist’s facility was on King Edward Avenue, later the home of the Ottawa Little Theatre. So it was natural when church union came about that the two congregations became one – St. Paul’s-Eastern United Church was the result.

You’ve all seen them when you visit older churches: plaques, illuminated scrolls, lists of names, sons and sometimes daughters of the church who died serving their country. There might be a stained glass window: author Louise Penny makes the stained glass window in the chapel in the fictional village of Three Pines, depicting three boys from the community who died in World War 1, the centrepiece of one of her recent books.

There are stories behind these names. Over the years historian Alan Bowker has presented the stories behind the names of MacKay United’s war dead, as part of the Remembrance Day service. This year, he told the stories of the nine men and one woman whose names are on the St. Paul’s Presbyterian World War 1 memorial plaque.

Nursing Sister Minnie Gallaher. Graduate of Protestant General Hospital. Drowned when Llandovery Castle was sunk in June, 1918.

Two of the dead were sons of St.Paul’s ministers. The woman, Minnie Katherine Gallaher, was also a child of the manse. Her father was a Presbyterian minister with a church in the Kingston area, but she had been a member at St.Paul’s.

While the men died on battlefields in France, Minnie’s story is different. A military nurse, she was caught up in one of the worst atrocities of the war — the torpedoing and sinking of the hospital ship HMHS Llandovery Castle, off the coast of Ireland in June 1918. The German submarine captain believed the Llandovery Castle to be a troop ship disguised as a hospital ship. He quickly recognized his assumption was incorrect, so when his sub surfaced, he ordered crew to machine gun all the survivors in the lifeboats. He believed no one would live to tell the tale, but 24 did.

Minnie was one of 14 Canadian nurses aboard the ship. A 1901 graduate of the Ottawa Protestant Hospital nurse training program, she rose through the ranks and became assistant superintendent of nursing at the Ottawa General Hospital. When she enlisted in 1915, she was superintendent of nursing at the Moose Jaw Hospital. She treated the wounded in military hospitals in Britain and France before being deployed to the Llandovery Castle.

After the torpedo struck, the 14 nurses were helped into a lifeboat. Sgt. Arthur Knight, who miraculously survived, was in charge and he told how, while they lowered the lifeboat quickly to the water’s surface, the sea was choppy and they had trouble getting free of the ropes holding the lifeboat to the ship’s side. They used the lifeboat’s oars in an effort to keep the lifeboat from being pounded into the side of the ship, but the oars broke. Eventually the ropes became loose and the drift carried the lifeboat towards the ship’s stern. Then the poop deck collapsed, the lifeboat was drawn into the vortex and flipped over with all aboard thrown into the sea, where they were drawn into the whirlpool.

While all the nurses were wearing lifebelts, two were in nightdress and 12 were in full uniform – heavy floor-length skirts and aprons. Sgt. Knight said he sank three times before managing to surface, where he was picked up by the Llandovery Castle captain’s life raft.

Sailors on the HMS Morea were horrified when they came upon the wreckage. The Morea’s captain, Kenneth Cummins, described the scene — the floating corpses of the nurses, Minnie Gallaher among them, their huge aprons and skirts in billows which looked like sails because they had dried while floating in the hot sun.

A tragic view of the HMHS Llandovery Castle with her stern sinking.

When the war ended, the Llandovery Castle atrocity was one of six German war crimes tried at Leipzig. Unfortunately, the submarine captain escaped to the independent city-state of Danzig prior to the trial. Crewmen who manned the machine guns said they were “just following orders” so the penalties were light.

Thus ended Minnie Gallaher’s war. Her name is on the monument in the cemetery in Halifax commemorating those lost at sea during World War 1. She is buried in Beechwood Cemetery.