To look at it today you’d never suspect St. Paul’s United Church came about because of a rail tunnel built beneath the St. Clair River.
But the south-end church, which celebrates its 125th anniversary on Nov. 9, can trace both its origin and current location to the 19th century engineering marvel.
Ferrying goods across the St. Clair River in winter was risky business, so plans for a mile-long river tunnel were hatched in the late 1880s.
Workers flooded into Sarnia’s south ward and a mission church was opened on Nov. 9, 1890 on Albert Street (today’s Vidal Street) to cater to their spiritual needs. That connection lasted well into modern times.
“A lot of the girls I went to school with, that’s where their dads worked, on the railroad,” said Shirley Martin, 70, a lifelong member of St. Paul’s and chair of its anniversary committee.
“When we had our 100th anniversary a bunch of the congregation walked from the old location on Vidal Street to (the current church on) Devine Street.
The St. Clair Tunnel was a triumph, but the Grand Trunk Railway reneged on a promised to build a bridge across the valley dug for the tunnel approach, according to The Torch Still Burns, a history compiled for the church’s centenary.
The severing of north and south Vidal Street impeded traffic and had a profound impact on the value of the church’s property.
A lawyer was hired, a $250 settlement won, and the congregation decided to move. A horse and plough cleared the ground and in 1903 a cornerstone was laid at the corner of Emma and Devine Street for St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church.
To mark its 125th anniversary the church organized a series of monthly events and is hosting a dinner and special service the weekend of Nov. 14-15.
A fashion show in June featuring old bridal gowns drew a number of former parishioners.
“Many of them said it felt like coming home,” said Martin, who was baptized and married in the church.
“We grew up there as kids and that was our family. People went to church together and Cub Scouts together or Explorers and they played baseball in the street together.”
After fire destroyed the first St. Paul’s the current church was built on the same site in 1963.
“Like all churches it has declined. In that end of town Devine Street has closed and St. John’s has closed, so there’s only St. Paul’s and St. Joe’s left. On some Sunday mornings you couldn’t get a parking spot,” Martin recalled.
The 120-member congregation is currently without a minister and making do with special guest speakers, she added.
“We’re an older congregation but we’re still spunky. We’re still hanging in there.”