Located on the island of Martinique, a small French overseas department of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, the city of Saint-Pierre was known for its luxury and comfort.
Its landscape was dominated by a mountain, known as Mount Pelée, with an altitude of 1350 metres. Although seemingly immersed in an eternal sleep, it held within it a great threat…
Starting in February of 1902, animals were seen fleeing from the mountain’s vicinity, disturbed by the strong smell of sulphur it exuded. During the nights, dogs howled endlessly. Finally, in May, Mount Pelée reminded the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre of its true identity: it was a volcano.
The ash fall was so intense that the branches of some trees broke off, unable to bear the weight. Birds were no longer heard in the region. Many families began to leave the island, others – thousands – decided to take a more optimistic approach, and wait for the events to unfold before taking any concrete action.
May 8, 1902, arrived – the day in which the Ascension of Our Lord was commemorated that year. Heaven, to which Christ had ascended almost two thousand years ago, seemed to be closed by great, opaque clouds. The volcanic explosions were growing in volume and many inhabitants fled the island while the church bells were ringing for the Solemnity service.
At fifty minutes past seven o’clock, according to Fr. Nicolas Pinaud1 in his study of the great event of Saint-Pierre, a noise comparable to hundreds of boat sirens tears the air, and a cloud of dense, black smoke streaked with lightning shoots from the volcano. In the blink of an eye it plunges over the city, covers and suffocates it, continuing on its way until reaching the sea and, expanding in every direction, grows like a mountain of ash and fire. In a few moments the region is covered by a black impenetrable mantle.
Seventy seconds were enough to wipe Saint-Pierre off the map. Some recorded facts indicate the force of the explosion: an statue of Our Lady weighing five tons, which was five kilometres away from the crater, was found some twelve meters away from its pedestal; a bell weighing approximately one ton was considerably deformed by the heat; of the four hundred boats that were in the radius of the mountain, only one remained; of the one hundred thousand people who inhabited the city, about forty thousand died from burning, asphyxiation, and electrocution.
What were the causes of the phenomenon?
Considering a tragedy like this, it is natural to wonder what caused it. Was it the mere coincidence of certain natural conditions, the result of chance? Or was there a decisive factor external to nature? In the search for an answer, albeit not a definitive one, let us leave aside complex scientific speculations and consider some events that took place before the explosion.
Seventy seconds were enough to wipe Saint-Pierre off the map. Does this phenomenon not lend itself to meditation?
The ruins of Saint-Pierre (Martinique Island) after the catastrophe
Louis Garaud, referring to the Shrovetide carnival that had been held in this city, says: “Never did the saturnalia in Rome, nor the bacchanalia in Greece, offer such a spectacle; never did the feast of fools in the Middle Ages display such excesses of mirth. The imagination cannot dream of such human folly.”2
As if this were not enough, in some cases, attitudes directly hostile to the Faith were also noted. On the feast of Corpus Christi, Msgr. de Cormont, Bishop of Saint-Pierre, had been forced to curtail the procession because of the stones and insults hurled at him during it. The anti-religious persecution took on such proportions that the prelate had to leave the island of Martinique for some months in order for the situation to calm down. At his departure, a group of enemies of the Cross were still throwing projectiles at him, to which Bishop de Cormont’s only response was: “You throw stones at us; the volcano will return them.” With these words – reminiscent of a malediction – he was referring to Mount Pélée, which until then had appeared to be sleeping…
During the 1902 carnival, the festivities took on a sacrilegious character. Many participants, dressed up as monks, made a mockery of Christianity. Moerens, in his book Funeral Pilgrimage to the Ruins of Saint-Pierre, recounts: “An excessively violent and ungodly crowd strives to de-Christianise this unhappy city. Narrow-minded and intolerant, those who have assumed the mission of directing public opinion do not cease, in regard to everything and anything, to spread blasphemy and cast contempt on all that is most respectable and sacred.”3
An infamous affront to God
The climax of these absurdities seems to have taken place on March 28, 1902, Good Friday, as an inhabitant of the island testified to one of the most famous newspapers in Paris.4 He describes how the happy town awoke normally on that placid and fresh tropical morning. On the verandas of the houses, one could see the housewives devoting themselves to putting everything in order before leaving for church.
Ruins of Saint-Pierre (Martinique Island) after the catastrophe
Meanwhile, a group of men head noisily for one of the city’s main hotels, where a feast is being prepared. They are the representatives of free thought who, to prove their independence of spirit, have decided to stuff themselves with the richest foods they can conjure up, in opposition to the precept of fasting and abstinence. Drunk, these diabolical men begin to roam the streets of the small capital, uttering obscenities and mocking an image of Our Lord that they carry.
They set out on the road that leads to the mountain. Fourteen times, amidst infamous blasphemies, the mob pauses, to parody the stations of the Way of the Cross and mock the scenes of the Passion. They continue their ascent, ever more agitated, inventing new improprieties at each step. At last they reach the peak… They stop before the gaping mouth of the volcano and there, in the midst of an infernal sarabande, jeering and gesticulating, they hurl to the bottom of the abyss the image of Him who, nineteen centuries ago, had died to redeem their ungrateful souls.
On the day of the Passion, an outrage of this magnitude is committed, and on the day of the Ascension, lava emerges to bury the city where the crime was committed. Just a coincidence? Could there be a connection between these events and the explosion of Mount Pelée? It cannot be stated absolutely, but we leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.
Meanwhile let us turn to a consideration which, as this article comes to a close, is perhaps as unexpected as it is undeniable: if there is one cause which can undoubtedly be alleged for the tragic carnage of Saint-Pierre, it can be set down to the optimism of the victims themselves. After all, there was no lack of warnings and premonitory signs before the cataclysm.
In the face of a catastrophe caused by nature, of a massacre provoked by human greed, of a punishment executed by the just arm of God – or perhaps all three together – the worst attitude is that of those who prefer to deny the reality of the facts and carry on with their soft, sleepy lives as if nothing were happening. It may follow that one day, upon awaking, it will already be too late. ◊
1 Cf. PINAUD, Nicolas. L’éruption de la Montagne Pelée. On ne se moque pas de Dieu. Avrillé: Le Sel de la Terre, 2010, p.13-14.
2 GARAUD, Louis. Trois ans a La Martinique. Paris: Alcide Picard et Kaan, 1892, p.70.
3 MOERENS, U. Pèlerinage funèbre aux ruines de Saint-Pierre, Martinique. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1903, p.60-61.
4 Cf. PINAUD, op. cit., p.18-19.