Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Stefan Stechuk, the hero of Henry Avenue

In a column entitled "'Hobo hero' sacrifices life for others -- 1933," published Nov. 29, 1975, Edith Paterson, the Free Press' answer to the Tribune's famously eccentric local history columnist Lillian Gibbons, recalled in 1975 the "hobo hero of Henry Avenue" from a cold night in late November of 1933.

Henry Avenue between Main and Austin Street in the early 1930s was an ancillary commercial strip of Main Street, lined with nine cafes, five barber shops, three pool rooms, and other services like a laundry, drug store, and watch repair. East of Austin, Henry Avenue was a row of old modest houses and a few industrial concerns, until it reached the street ended at the Hobo Jungle along the riverbank. The little old hotels on Main Street, their bars, and the countless pool rooms, cheap cafes, and tenements on surrounding streets made the area around Henry Avenue a busy centre for the city's down-and-out men.

Early in this cold morning, before dawn, one unknown face of the time and place looked out across Henry Avenue from a doorway where he attempted to keep warm. Noticing smoke coming out from behind John's Cafe at 191 Henry, the man got up and called for a passerby to turn in a fire alarm, as he ran into the burning building and up the stairs. There he found the cafe's owner, Louis Kapusta, and his wife and six children.

Henry Avenue looking west from Martha Street, 1962. The building at 191 Henry was on the right side, approximately where the orange "S" is shown. Credit

"The transient led the family down the smoke-filled stairway to safety," Paterson wrote, "then, learning that four men were still upstairs, rushed back into the building and struggled through the choking smoke to the second floor." Finding three more lodgers, he led them to the back fire escape. Returning into the building for a 60 year-old man, he found him and was able to push him out of the room, toward the fire escape.

"But he himself could not make it. He collapsed across the bed where he died."

The body of the transient, a short, well-built young man of around 25, was "burnt beyond recognition." An unused meal voucher from a neighborhood mission was found his pocket, and from this, authorities determined the identity of the brave departed as that of Stefan Stechuk. Born in Austria, Stechuk had arrived in Winnipeg only four days earlier.

A funeral service, paid for by the City's Social Welfare Commission, was held at St. Nicholas' Church on Stella Avenue. "Twelve Candles burned beside the casket to symbolize the 12 lives he had saved." Hundreds attended the service.

Stechuk is buried at All Saint's Cemetery in West St. Paul, and for years, someone would place a wreath on his grave on the anniversary of the fire.

A bronze plaque was cast that commemorated Stefan Stechuk's bravery, and was placed in the entrance of City Hall, alongside five other plaques to remember the heroic Winnipeggers who gave their lives during the world wars, the six Winnipeg men who died in the sinking of the Titanic, and to two local scoutmasters who drowned while saving others in 1917.

These plaques disappeared when the city hall was torn down in 1961, and when Mrs. Paterson inquired at the City about them 14 years later, their whereabouts were unknown, presumably in storage somewhere. Today, their whereabouts, like the memory of Stefan Stechuk's heroism, are still forgotten.

Things are often forgotten in Winnipeg. Credit


  1. I'd imagine in the bowels of city archives, or deep at the bottom of a former landfill, there are dozens of plaques commemorating many interesting, brave and sad souls from the city's past. That is very sad.

    Luckily with online archives etc. some of these people and feats can come back to life. This was a great story !

  2. Thanks. I actually came across this story by accident, while looking through scrapbooks at the Legislative Library.

    Hopefully someone can accidentally come across these plaques (which are probably tucked away deep in the basement of the Winnipeg Archives) some day soon.

  3. thats the beauty of archives it allows one to rediscover this stuff its like when i found the photo of my home from 1914 and the voting scandal asociated with it some much is forgotten over time and it does not take very long

    so is the s around where the thunder bird gardens are today?

    is that a grain elevator where the Chinese market sits now?