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Long-lost relatives reunited after Stratford jail fire of '76 ripped them apart

Mary Ann Cole's niece never knew she existed before a Facebook post brought them together
Mary Ann Cole's niece, a St. Marys resident, points to a photograph of the mural commemorating the 1976 Stratford Jail fire. This reference led to the recent rediscovery of the mural and the Stratford Hall of Friendship in Guelph.

Mary Ann Cole was 13 when her brother Fred Cole died in the 1976 Stratford jail fire. He was 18 years old. 

She had no idea that all this time she had a niece living just around the corner from her hometown. 

"It's a miracle," Mary Ann said. "I could have gone my whole life – we could have gone our whole lives – never knowing.”

Mary Ann’s niece currently lives in St. Marys. She does not wish to be named because her adoptive parents do not know that she has discovered her birth family and, being in their 80s, does not want to cause undue stress. 

When she was 18 years old, Mary Ann’s niece received a confidential package with details of her biological parents. Her mother had died in a car crash when she was young, and her extended family on her mother’s side was unreceptive to a relationship with her. Her father was Fred Cole.  

Fred was one of five inmates who perished in the fire, alongside Robert Conley, 19, James Bradley, 18, Allan Aronson, 19, and Keith Hess, 36. They died from carbon monoxide poisoning after jail staff and firefighters failed to reach their cells in time. 

Mary Ann’s niece said that she found her aunt in a “last ditch attempt.” Since she was 18 she has been searching for her birth father’s family, but never heard anything. She is close to 50 now. 

In October of last year she made a post on Facebook asking for information about Fred Cole. That night she got a phone call. 

“It was from Mary Ann,” she said. “She’s like ‘why are you looking for Fred Cole?’ And I said, ‘well I was adopted and Fred Cole is my biological father.’

“We were sobbing. Because I didn't know that she didn't know about me. No one had told her that Fred had had a child.”

For Mary Ann, the fire splintered her family. Her father divorced her step-mother shortly after her brother’s death and there was some fighting and suing between the families and the jail, though it amounted to nothing for her family. 

Mary Ann doesn’t remember specific details around that time, being 13, but she recalled that her mother was going to court hearings everyday, gathering up articles and making notes on everything.  

When she passed away, all her notes, gathered together in one book, came to Mary Ann. 

She also found a curious reference under a picture of a strange art piece, a mural commemorating the fire that was painted in the “Stratford Friendship Hall.”

Mary Ann, like everyone else she spoke to about it, had no idea where this hall was. 

She lives in Florida now, but asked a friend in Canada to find the hall, which was easier said than done.  

After some inquiries to the Stratford Perth Museum came to a dead end, they only had one clue – a note underneath the photograph of the mural that said it was painted by a Guelph inmate. 

Enter P. Brian Skerrett, a Guelph-based histoiran.

Skerrett got an email out of the blue one day in a “Hail Mary” attempt to find the artist. Skerrett, a Guelph-based historian, was intrigued. He had not heard of the Stratford Hall of Friendship at that point. 

He recalled a 1977 article in the Globe and Mail entitled “A prisoner’s paintings: new life for jail and himself,” featuring a Guelph inmate by the name of Vincent Bocchini who painted murals. 

“I honestly thought it couldn't really be him,” Skerrett admitted. “It would be too easy.”

But there, at the end of the article, was a story about Bochinni taking Globe reporter Donald Grant to the basement of the Guelph Correctional Centre’s chapel, where the Stratford Hall of Friendship was. 

Once you know what to look for, the rest can be easy, Skerrett said. After reading that, he contacted a chaplain of the chapel, who had photos of the mural and information about it. 

Skerrett explained that some of the prisoners that died in the Stratford jail fire had spent time in Guelph, including Fred Cole. A number of inmates in Guelph knew of the fire and knew how the prisoners died, including Bocchini. 

“It was a degrading way to die,” Bocchini is quoted in the article. “It caused friction between inmates and guards here. Morale was down. We pointed out it shouldn’t be that way. So we have this room. It’s a neat place.” 

Although accredited as the artist of the mural, it is understood that he directed its painting but he had other prisoners helping him. 

Reading between the lines, Skerrett thinks that the mural was painted to appease the inmates and avoid a riot. He believes that the prisoners who assisted Bocchini were inmates that knew the Stratford five. 

The mural commemorating the 1976 Stratford Jail fire, located in the Stratford Hall of Friendship in Guelph. Courtesy of P. Brian Skerrett

Whether or not the mural is still in the chapel is not known. 

No one is allowed in the chapel and the provincial government didn’t acknowledge the mural’s existence when an inquiry was made, Skerrett claimed. Additionally, some of the old reformatory is protected under a heritage designation, though the chapel is not included. 

“So unless I can convince city council this year to put the chapel on the heritage register, the building itself has no protections.”

Aerial views on Google Earth show holes in the roof, indicating to Skerrett that the building is beginning to fail. There is no telling what condition the mural is in inside, or if that it is still there. They only know that the mural was there when the facility closed in 2002. 

Infrastructure Ontario manages the former correctional centre on behalf of the government. Catherine Tardik, a spokesperson for the organization, said in an emailed statement that they are working to gather as much information about artwork in the chapel as possible.

"However, due to significant, long-standing health and safety and structural concerns with the chapel, access has not been possible and therefore any artwork is not officially documented," Tardik said. 

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“I think the mural in the basement is like the cherry on the sundae,” Skerrett said, especially given the miraculous turn of events that brought Mary Ann and her niece together.  “I don't believe in miracles, but maybe I do … It's pretty remarkable.” 

Although Skerrett was the one to eventually find the mural, he stressed that everyone who touched this puzzle went the extra mile in making sure that the final piece was found. 

He particularly praised the work of Micaela Fitzsimmons at the Stratford Perth Museum for her work connecting various people and organizations across the region. If not for her work, the mural never would have been found. 

Skerrett wants the original mural to be saved – for the whole site to be made a National Urban Park – and for it to made visible to the public

He hopes that Mary Ann and her niece’s story won’t disappear. 

“The wall mural is inaccessible and this is a story that is actually disappearing,” Skerrett warned. “If that painting becomes always visible, it's always a reminder. Then the story doesn't die and we don't have to rewrite it every five or 10 or 15 years to bring it back to the surface.”

Both Mary Ann and her niece wish for the mural to be recreated, so that the story may be told and remembered. As they both said, the tragedy of the fire would not happen today and if it did, then families would see some kind of justice or accountability. 

But aside from any broad historical significance, the mural is personally significant for them. 

“It's a miracle to me because I have no family left at all,” Mary Ann said. “We've been talking almost every day since we met. There's so much to catch up on, we have so much to talk about.”