Shock and sadness in Cape Breton after a historic building was destroyed by fire in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Firefighters spent nearly 12 hours battling the blaze at the former Villa Madonna Retreat Centre in Little Bras d’Or.

Denise and Eugene Simon were among the first witnesses on the scene.

“As we drove by, we saw smoke coming from the top floor, and it was just smouldering, so I called 911,” says Denise Simon.

“That’s when the flames started coming out from the entrance of the building, and the smoke and stuff, and they could hear, I guess the hardwood floor, cracking inside,” adds Eugene Simon.

Before long more than three dozen firefighters from three different departments were on scene, battling the flames. They ended up being there all night.

“Probably around 2:30-3:00 a.m., it started breaching through the roof system and travelled through the whole length of the building,” says Adam MacIntyre, Deputy Chief of the Florence Volunteer Fire Department. “At the brunt of the fire, we had about 40 firefighter personnel on scene.”

The building is a total loss and will be demolished tomorrow.

The former Villa Madonna Retreat Centre has been vacant for years, but was home to decade’s worth of memories made and friendships formed. For 60 years it was a retreat centre operated by the Diocese of Antigonish.

Prior to that, it had been an orphanage. Charlie Doucette was a child at the orphanage more than 80 years ago, and on Sunday dropped by to see his former home one last time.

“I’ll be sad to see it go because, like I said, that’s where I started my life really. Three years old, I remember it. It’s not easy,” says Doucette.

Firefighters were on scene for more than 11 hours until all of the hot spots were put out. The investigation has now been turned over to police and the fire marshal’s office.

“The cause is unkown at this point. Police were here earlier, and they have security on site now,” explains MacIntyre.

Those who witnessed the fire say they’re just glad no one was hurt.

“It’s sad to see but I’m glad everything turned out alright,” says Denise Simon.

A historic building with a long past, gone in the dead of the night.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Ryan MacDonald.