Rita Samborski (left) and Cecile Schultz hold photos of a church restoration project their father and brothers took part in in 1956.
By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Four black and white photos sit on a dining room table, each telling part of the story of how a father and his three sons restored St. Jean Baptiste Church’s steeple cross in 1956 after the religious symbol had been struck by lightning in a summer storm. They are all that remain between Rita Samborski of Morinville and Cecile Schultz of Legal, sisters whose father and brothers did the original job.
While the historic church’s current half million restoration project is being conducted on nearly 30,000 pounds of metal scaffolding that rises roughly 100 feet up the church’s face and steeple, when Joseph St. Laurent and sons Bob, Joe and Buster did their work in the mid-50s, the scaffolding was made of wood and contained fewer safety features than current technology does.
Samborski and Schultz have long cherished the family photos, many which have been lost over time. More importantly, they have cherished the memory of their father and brothers, all of who have since passed away.
“They wanted somebody to do the church work, and of course there were other contractors at the time, but dad and the boys were the ones doing the top,” Schultz recalled, adding the lightning strike had bent the cross, a situation that ultimately requiring it to be shortened. That’s where the St. Laurents came in.
Unlike the engineered metal scaffolding common on construction sites today, the scaffolding erected by Jos. St. Laurent and Sons was a product of its time. “They had so many boards in there,” Samborski said. “They had two-by-sixes and two-by-eights. They built that from scratch. It’s all wood.”
Lightning strikes twice
Schultz and Samborski said a couple months after the original lightning strike, while their father was working to prep the cross’ base, lightning struck a second time, blasting their father back off the steeple area and down its side.
“Dad and the boys had gone back to work after having lunch, and dad was working [on the steeple],” Schultz recalled. “It started to storm and the boys came down to get off there because dad had got them to get off. He was up high. I saw the lightning hit and he dropped.”
Schulz said their father was saved by being caught between the angle of the steeple and one of the four corner finials at its base. But while an architectural corner element saved the senior St. Laurent from what would be an almost certain early death, the incident was not without lasting effects. “He had kind of a stroke after a few minutes,” Schultz said. “We think that [lightning strike] might have been the start of him having his heart troubles.”
Samborski said despite the close call, the family business continued the job it set out to do and put the cross back on the steeple’s top where it sits to this day. “They realized they had to bring it down to cut it because their was too much damage,” she said, adding the heavy cross was lowered and raised with a large rope.
The sisters feel the 1950s project their male relatives performed never got the attention the church’s current restoration has received. There seemed no need for attention at the time. The work simply needed to be done and the St. Laurents and community got on with it.
“Dog gone it, there wasn’t that much fuss,” Schultz said. “Everybody worked. It was a community deal. If these guys [today] got the wages that dad did. Look at what they had to work with.” Schultz asked her brothers a few years ago if they would do it all again. “They said, ‘Hell, no,’ she recalled. “Dad worked so hard for the town and there was always [someone else] that got the credit for it. I guess it stuck in my craw all these years.”
Joseph St. Laurent passed away in 1978 at the age of 60. The brothers continued the company for a time, continuing the type of work their father and they had done for years in and around Morinville. They, too, have since passed away.
The work truck of Joseph St. Laurent and Sons sits on Man Street in front of the scaffolding the company erected in 1956 to repair the church’s lightning struck cross.