Another 150th Anniversary

Christ Church Anglican Petrolia

Our second guest contributor is Pat McGee. Pat and husband Charlie Fairbank operate Van Tuyl & Fairbank Hardware – one of the country’s oldest – and Fairbank Oil – which is the country’s oldest. They are Petrolia150 partners and among Petrolia and the Oil Heritage District’s strongest supporters and boosters.

Pat’s article features the history of Petrolia’s Anglican congregation and Christ Church, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, along with those of the Petrolia150 triple sesquicentennial.

The first brick church, built in 1882, after the steeple was removed.

Christ Church Anglican is Steeped in Oil History

This year Christ Church Anglican is celebrating its 150th anniversary and though the heady days of Petrolia’s 40-year oil boom of the 1800s may be long gone, the past is always present in the church.

It is most present in two heritage treasures: the beautiful chimes donated by oil magnate Jacob Englehart in 1910, and the outstanding Memorial Window of stained glass documenting the town’s oil history.

During Doors Open, the public is invited to climb the bell tower to play the chimes on June 11 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and the stained glass windows of the church are open to be viewed too. On June 12, it will be the windows only between and 1 and 4 p.m.

Known as The Church of England until 1955, this was the church that drew many of the major players of the oil industry starting in 1866. Its congregants included John Henry Fairbank, Canada’s largest oil producer, and Jake Englehart, Canada’s largest refiner. Other early members included John D. Noble (creator of underground tanks), Charles Jenkins, (of Petrolia Tanking Company), Fred Edwards (an International Driller), and Harrison Corey (who manufactured nitroglycerin for opening oil wells).

The Church Rooted in Oil Heritage

The church has a long and storied history and all of it is laced with oil. The congregation began in early 1866 –  several months before the famous King Well came in, and  also before the Great Western Railway and Petrolia officially became a village.

With its first service in the bar of the American Hotel and the liquor discreetly covered with a curtain, you could say the church had humble beginnings. It stayed humble for quite a while. Not having any money to build a church, services were held at Fairbank Hall at the foot of the east end hill for a whole six years.

The American Hotel, where Anglicans held services at least as early as May 1866

Still not having sufficient funds by 1872, it then took advantage of John Henry Fairbank’s offer of free land on Railroad Street – even though it was most inconveniently located at the largely unpopulated west end of town beyond Bear Creek. Cheaply built, “rain and snow were frequent visitors inside.” This was endured for 10 years while making plans for a new home.

Petrolia’s first Christ Church, built in the west end 1n 1872

Edna Fairbank, wife of J.H., was the treasurer and donated $1,500 to the cause and said she would also donate the money from three new oil wells her husband was drilling. Unfortunately, these were dry holes, so she loaned money to the church to pay the contractors. The gleaming white brick church at the corner of Oil and Henry Streets opened in 1882 with much fanfare. It was the first brick church Petrolia had ever seen and also the first west of Bear Creek.

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The first brick church in Petrolia, built 1882, showing the original tall steeple

It was not paid for, however, and by 1887 Mrs. Fairbank felt the church owed her $10,000 with interest. It was said that without Mrs. Fairbank’s efforts and her money, the church would never have been built. It was a vast sum and the church organization, headed by Charles Jenkins, had no viable plans to repay her. The acrimony splashed across the pages of the Petrolia Topic and the Petrolea Advertiser for years before she successfully sued the church.

Meanwhile, Jacob Englehart arrived in Petrolia in 1870, converted from Judaism and joined the congregation. By 1878, Englehart was well-established in Petrolia and headed the largest and most sophisticated refinery in the world, The Silver Star. This became part of the newly formed Imperial Oil and Englehart was its second vice-president. By 1884, Imperial Oil had moved its headquarters to Centre Street in Petrolia.

At this point, both Englehart and the Fairbanks were wealthy and generous to the church too. On December 31, 1891, Englehart married Charlotte Eleanor Thompson in the most lavish wedding the church and Petrolia had ever seen. He gave the bridesmaids diamond rings.

In 1906, the Engleharts moved away from Petrolia for a new home in northern Ontario because Jacob became the new chairman of the Temiskaming and Northern Railway. As fate would have it, Charlotte died two years later, on their 17th wedding anniversary. The following year, in her memory, Englehart donated a chime of 11 bells for the church tower. Each bell is named and the largest are Faith, Hope and Charity. These chimes would ring for J.H.’s funeral in 1914 and also for Englehart’s in 1921.

Jake Englehart’s bells. (Sarnia Observer photo)

These chimes have been cherished and played for more than 100 years. As a special gift, Englehart left an endowment so that all brides married in the church would have the bells rung for them. It’s a practice that continues to this day.

Challenges and Blessings in the 20th Century

Two fires have ravaged the church. The blaze of 1945 meant the congregation held its services in the Masonic Temple and meetings were held in J.H. Fairbank’s Little Red Bank. This was temporary but when fire struck again in January 1957, the church was gutted and parishioners were devastated to see their beautiful church in ashes. The large pump organ was rubble. May and Charles Fairbank had donated it in memory of their mother, Edna. One blessing was that firefighters saved the chimes, valued at more than $600,000.

While plans were made for a new church, services continued. For a few weeks they were held at the Presbyterian church and then, for two years they were conducted at the Fairbank mansion.

The Third Church Opens in 1959

The new church, not too modest nor too grand, was built on site and opened on June 7, 1959. Unfurnished, it cost a little over $102,000, a challenging amount for parishioners. To keep costs down, the windows were plain. By 1961, a campaign was underway to gradually fill the church with non-traditional stained glass windows. A stained glass artist of London, Ontario named Christopher Wallis was commissioned to create a collection of 13 windows using the theme based on the Rule of Life from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. One by one he created them as funds came available, a project that took a full 27 years to complete.

The Memorial Window with oil themes (Evelyn Ward de Roo photo)

The last window, the massive Memorial Window in 1983 was so stunning, it received Ontario Heritage designation. Remarkably, it has the entire history of Petrolia’s oil in it. A timeline of 30 Petrolia milestones between 1846 and 1899 borders three sides and within the three-panelled window are depictions of Lambton’s International Drillers working in Java, refining, transportation, and drilling. Christ is shown with a large field wheel behind him. Historian Ted Phelps helped with research along with Charles Fairbank Sr. and his son, Charlie. “It will serve to remind people where the oil and riches came from,” said the senior Fairbank in 1980.

Oil-04_Transportation@0 copy

It would be almost three decades later that it was discovered that Christopher Wallis is one of the most distinguished stained glass artists in the country with more than 800 windows across Canada. His work has been unveiled by the queen, photographed by Karsh and it has graced an international postage stamp too.

All these things combined with its long history make Christ Church Anglican as unique as Petrolia.

– by Patricia McGee,

author of Wonders of Light, photos by Carol Graham and Hugh Clouse and The Story of Fairbank Oil

May 2016

[ed. note: While in Petrolia for Doors Open Lambton County (June 11 and 12, 2016), visit both Christ Church and Nemo Hall, the opulent home of John J. Kerr. S.L.]

Christ Church today (Evelyn Ward de Roo photo)

One thought on “Another 150th Anniversary

  1. Pat, you always amaze me with your interesting and well written information. Thanks for making sure people know about the wonderful history that is all around us. Joy Smith


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