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Halifax careful to commemorate, not celebrate, anniversary of Titanic's sinking

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HALIFAX - Almost a century ago, church bells tolled to herald the sombre arrival of cable ships carrying Titanic victims in Halifax harbour.

On Sunday morning they will ring again, nearly 100 years to the hour that the great ship vanished from sight, swallowed up by the dark waters of the North Atlantic on a moonless night.

Since the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, Halifax has become a pilgrimage site for history buffs, romantics and those whose ancestors perished on the ship. The city is the final resting place for 150 of the Titanic's victims.

Organizers of commemorative events have been working for months to attract visitors to Halifax while maintaining the solemnity of the occasion.

"Keeping the events respectful and meaningful has been our No. 1 priority all along," says Kyla Friel, a spokeswoman for Nova Scotia's Communities, Culture and Heritage Department.

The department has been working closely with the Titanic 100 Society, a non-profit community group, to plan events including public seminars, film festivals and musical performances to mark the centennial.

Some 1,500 passengers and crew members died when the Titanic, the largest ocean liner of its time, collided with an iceberg and went down south of the Grand Banks. There were just over 700 survivors.

"We believe we've struck that balance between commemorating Halifax's connection and along with that, making it a public, free event so that Nova Scotians and visitors can come to Halifax and participate in history," says Friel.

On Saturday evening, a candlelight procession will begin on the city's harbourfront boardwalk outside the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

The museum, which boasts the largest display of wooden Titanic artifacts in the world, launched a new exhibit on cable ships Thursday. The ships were dispatched from Halifax in the days after the sinking to pull bodies from the icy waters.

The procession will wind through downtown Halifax and into Grand Parade, a public square in front of City Hall. Some 20 performers, including a barbershop quartet and Symphony Nova Scotia, will play music from the era.

Actor Gordon Pinsent will also tell the story of the Titanic and Halifax's connection to the tragedy, followed by a moment of silence and ringing of church bells at 12:30 a.m.

The timing of the bells is deliberate: the last wireless message to be received from the Titanic at Cape Race, N.L., was recorded at 12:27 a.m.

For Ken Pinto, executive director of the Titanic 100 Society, the weekend will cement Halifax and Canada as a key part of the Titanic's story.

"People are finally connecting and embracing our own Titanic heritage," says Pinto. "That's the ultimate goal of this."

More events are planned for Sunday, including a spiritual ceremony at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where more than 100 Titanic victims are buried. Later in the day, J.A. Snow Funeral Home, which prepared bodies for burial in the disaster's aftermath, will unveil a permanent memorial to the passengers and crew who died in the sinking.

Other locations in Halifax with links to the tragedy have made their own plans to pay tribute to the Titanic.

J.A. Snow Funeral Home was once located inside what is now the Five Fishermen Restaurant and Grill. The downtown seafood restaurant still contains the pulleys used to hoist the funeral home's caskets, only now the shaft is used as a wine cellar.

"It's a daily occurrence now where people are curious, they hear about the building and the history and they are inquiring," says Maurice Kaneary, the restaurant's general manager.

Until the end of April, the restaurant is offering a three-course meal inspired by the Titanic's first-class menu.

Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, says local businesses have been careful to appropriately observe the tragedy.

"It's not so much a big celebration as a commemoration and I think that everyone's very aware of that," says MacKinnon.

Friel says organizers are prepared for the crowds they hope will come to observe the anniversary.

Once the crowds depart, Pinto says the world will continue to be fascinated by the ship that foundered on its maiden voyage.

"You can't define it," he says. "It's something that connects with people at a deep level."


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