Researching one old story can often lead an amateur historian straight to another one.
Such was the case with a recent tale of a robbery and desecration of St. Joseph’s Church in 1924.
As a boy of 11, I briefly lived at 294 Stuart Street. Directly across the street, at 293, was the beautiful Romanesque architectural splendour that was St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church.
I used to augment my allowance on Saturday nights in the late 1950s by wandering the smoke-filled basement of the church at crowded bingo games, selling from a tray of soft drinks hung around my neck.
I also served as an altar boy here, including one memorable morning in the sacristy when I found myself suddenly engulfed in flames. Preparing to walk onto the altar in procession, the boy behind me had absent mindedly leaned his lit candlestick too close to my lace surplice.
Father Cooney beat out the flames with his bare hands.
But as I researched the 1924 incident at St. Joseph’s, I had a problem reconciling the date. The church on Stuart Street, I knew, hadn’t been built until 1928 – four years later.
The mystery was solved by a book entitled, Gather up the Fragments, a history of the Diocese of London. My friend, Ian Mason, curator of the Presbyterian Church Museum in Toronto, also knew the story.
In 1890, the youth of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church raised $400 to purchase a plot of land at the southwest corner of Confederation and Vidal (then Albert) streets. They built a small church for a South Ward congregation, known as the Albert Street Presbyterian Church.
The congregation soon outgrew the Albert Street structure. A new church was built in 1903 on the northwest corner of Emma and Devine streets, named “St. Paul’s.”
In 1904, the South Ward building was offered for sale by public auction, as advertised in the April 20, 1904 pages of the Sarnia Observer. The Diocese of London purchased the church, and the Albert Street Presbyterian Church became the first St. Joseph’s Church in Sarnia. Also known as “The Little Church,” it became a Mission Church of the larger Catholic Mother Church, Our Lady of Mercy.
Under Father Thomas J. McCarthy, a school, rectory and convent soon followed.
It was at Albert Street, in 1924, that the incident depicted in my earlier story had occurred.
After the St. Joseph’s on Stuart Street was built in 1928, the South Ward structure became a school until being sold, in 1937, to the Ukrainian Educational Shevchenko Society.
After another three decades of various use, The Little Church was finally demolished in 1969.
Phil Egan is editor-in-chief of the Sarnia Historical Society. Got an interesting tale? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org