The Old St. Thomas Church’s name is fitting, as it is in fact one of the oldest buildings in the city. As a staple of St. Thomas for almost two centuries, it is one of the most historically significant sites as well. There is history to be discovered in every corner of both the church and its graveyard, full of hundreds of incredible stories passed on from generation to generation. Some of the stories are fact, while some are legend and lore. Each have a place in our history, and they all make up why the church is such a fascinating and important spot in St. Thomas. Here is the history of the Old St. Thomas Church, along with just some of its stories that live on today:
The plot of land on which the Old St. Thomas Church stands was once owned by St. Thomas founder Daniel Rapelje, who donated it for a church to be built in 1822. However, the first service did not occur until 1824, because the city’s founders had difficulty getting people to settle and join the congregation. The following year, the spire and bell tower were added, featuring the bell of an old locomotive.
Inside the simple but elegant structure, U-shaped pews line the church, which families could purchase as their own. Because people owned their pews, they often kept their belongings in them, such as blankets for when the church got frigid in winter. The pews closest to the front were the most costly, and thus that is where the richest families sat, while poorer families sat in the balcony where seats were cheaper. There is even a physical divider between the balcony’s “cheap seats” and where the choir was situated, a clear indication of class division. There are no stairs to the left balcony at the front, which is why local lore says prisoners were sat there. It is believed that they got up using a ladder which was then taken away so they could not escape – though this is likely untrue.
The southern end of the church was an addition made by 1840, which is evident by the different walls and flooring. The stained glass at the front and the pulpit were subsequently given to the church as gifts, noticeable due to their greater detail and grandeur in comparison to the church’s basic early 1800s appearance. The ornate wooden pulpit found to the left of the front was donated in honour of the Reverend Charles Ermatinger, who delivered his first sermon in the church. When he returned later in his life, he experienced heart palpitations while he preached and died two weeks after what would be his last sermon.
The church was in use until 1877, when the Anglican population moved to the much larger Trinity Anglican Church. In 1982, The Old St. Thomas Church was declared a designated heritage property, and is still open to the public today, with free tours all summer.
The Old St. Thomas Church cemetery is the final resting place of many interesting and important icons, both local and national. Here are the stories of some of those buried there:
The oldest gravestone in the yard is from 1819, before the church was built, in the back corner near the ravine. This is the Rapelje family’s grave, which appears to be a bench, and overlooks the ravine with a perfect view of the sunset through the trees.
A flat rectangular stone marks the grave of Hugh Richardson. Richardson was the judge who sentenced Louis Riel, leader of the Métis Rebellion, to death in one of the most significant cases of capital punishment in Canadian history. Richardson wanted to be buried with his daughter in the cemetery, whose grave can be found east of his.
There is a woman named Susan Paul buried on the edge of the cemetery, near the ravine. Susan’s father got her tickets to a ball in London held for Prince Albert’s visit. She was not on the Prince’s card of with whom he would dance that night, but when one girl in his schedule did not show up, he instead danced with Susan. They both were said to never have been happier, seemingly falling in love. But they tragically parted ways at the end of the night, and Susan went on to never marry.
Samuel Eccles is another local buried there, who started a brewery in London. Seeing no profits in the company, he sold it to his partner, John Labatt, which he understandably may have lived to regret.
There is also a grave for American Civil War veteran Octavius Wallace, who died in the battle of Williamsburg and was brought back to St. Thomas to be buried.
Officer Sam McKeown has a plot in the graveyard as well. McKeown was issuing an arrest warrant for Frank and Fred Temple, a father and son duo caught stealing a bicycle, when Frank shot McKeown’s partner, Colin McGregor. McKeown testified at Frank and Fred’s trial, which ended in the father and son both being sentenced to death. They were the last people to be hung in St. Thomas in 1935.
Perhaps the most famous grave in the yard belongs to Maria Baldwin. Rumours began of Maria being a witch in the 1970s due to her gravestone turning black. Citizens believed the grave caught on fire on Halloween, and anyone who dared enter the four posts and touch the stone would be cursed. In reality, the stone turned black because it was very porous and thus did not withstand acid rain and soot from the railway. Her story is actually a tragic one: the rose details on the stone represent a life taken too soon, as in 1863, Maria died from complications during childbirth at age 22. Her baby died nine months later and is buried with her.
The most expensive and extravagant grave is without a doubt that of the Chisholm family. The large and intrinsically detailed stone marks the lives of seven family members, all having died in quick succession. A legend surrounding the grave has circulated for almost a century, detailing the “Irish Curse” which was set upon the family. The story was published in the London Free Press on November 28th, 1925, crediting Ella N. Lewis, who was told the story by her father. The tale went as follows: William Chisholm was a ship captain, with a member of his crew being the only son of an Irish widow. Before setting sail one day, the widow begged him not to make the trip, saying that if he did, she’d never see her son again. Chisholm ignored her, but a storm hit and the schooner was destroyed, killing her son. In her grief, she put the Curse of Ireland upon the captain: “may all of your children die young and not one in their bed.”
Between 1828 and 1835, every member of his immediate family had died except one, Robert Bruce, who moved to Colorado. But after coming to St. Thomas to erect the memorial for his family, Robert Bruce died in a train wreck on his return. Miss Lewis mentioned that one of the children drowned, another was innocently caught in a drunken brawl and killed, and a third was murdered. She also said one of the Chisholm daughters, Francis Oswell, was on a hill when her horse was spooked and ran away, killing her and her unborn baby. Of all of the tales, this last one holds the most truth, as many locals did recall such a tragedy happening in Port Stanley.
However, the rest of the story may have been significantly dramatized. But how did a family suffer so greatly in such a short period of time? The most logical explanation is disease, specifically tuberculosis, typhoid fever, or cholera. As a doctor, the eldest son Archibald likely would have been exposed to infectious diseases like cholera, which was very common in 1830 - his year of death. Being extremely contagious, these diseases may have been passed through the family very quickly, resulting in their untimely deaths.
The Old St. Thomas Church is still an active cemetery, while also having a scattering garden. Trespassing is strictly forbidden from dusk to dawn, but we encourage you to respectfully visit the property during its open hours to fully appreciate this incredible local history. See if you can find the graves of these icons, and remember to be mindful of their resting places.
7/12/2018 07:56:54 am
That was so enjoyable to read! Love historical accounts like this. Thanks for taking the time to put that together - I should think anyone living in St. Thomas would be interested in this!
Railway City Tourism
7/12/2018 01:36:59 pm
Thanks for letting us know you enjoyed this post Amanda! We have some more history pieces on the way!
11/12/2018 02:09:20 pm
Great read! My great-grandfather was Sam McKeown.
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