It is said that Major General Isaac Brock, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Upper Canada during the war of 1812, used to sit on a rock in the middle of this burial ground, plotting battles and keeping an eye on the enemy just across the Niagara River. The fabled rock is still there, just one of the many secrets that St. Mark’s Anglican Church and Cemetery in Niagara-on-the-Lake reveals to modern visitors. Besides being stunningly beautiful and soothingly tranquil, this holy ground is unusually rich in history.
The cemetery at St. Mark’s, for example, is the oldest anywhere in Ontario. Even before the cemetery was established in 1792 to serve the village of Newark (as Niagara-on-the-Lake was then called), the grounds had been used for centuries as a First Nations burial site. The earliest tombstone dates back to 1794, and memorializes Elizabeth Kerr, daughter of Molly Brant (sister of Joseph Brant and herself an influential Mohawk leader) and her mate Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs. But an even older headstone resides within the church. Therein lies an interesting story. During the construction of the church transept in 1828, a weathered old grave marker belonging to Leonard Planck was discovered. Planck, a member of Butler’s Rangers, had died in 1782 at the military hospital that was located to the east of the church. His death was a painful one, as he lingered for months after being wounded at the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Upper Sandusky. No one knows where he was buried or where the headstone originally was placed, so it resides today within the church.
Because Newark was a small community, over the next few decades only a handful of others joined Elizabeth Kerr in St. Mark’s cemetery. That all changed in the autumn of 1812, when the United States declared war on Britain and invaded her Canadian colonies. For the next four years, the Niagara frontier became a hotly contested battleground. Hundreds fell on each side, with many of those who fought under the British banner ending up, at St. Mark’s Cemetery.
In fact, St. Mark’s has literally been scarred by that conflict of long ago. The church, only four years old when war erupted, was pressed into service as a hospital to treat soldiers gruesomely wounded in battle. Surgeons had no recourse but to amputate if lives were to be saved. Deep gouges left by the surgeon’s axe can still be seen in several flat tombstones that served as impromptu operating beds (another explanation, that the marks were made by American soldiers in an attempt to deface the tombstones has little merit; why were the upright stones, so easily broken or removed, not disturbed?). Naturally, the church continued to perform its sacred role as well, and was here that Brock’s funeral service was conducted after he fell at the Battle of Queenston Heights.
When the Americans occupied Newark, they pressed the church into service as a barracks and dug rifle pits in the cemetery, the contours of which can still be seen. Later, when they retreated in the winter of 1813, they set the church alight with the rest of the community.
Thankfully, the church’s greatest treasure, a vast library of priceless books, survived the fire. How? The church’s first rector was Robert Addison, who arrived in 1792 who brought with him over 1500 books (this at a time when even a middle-class family might have but a few books in their possession due to prohibitive cost). This literary treasure trove survived the fire because they were housed in Addison’s home, Lake Lodge, outside of town. Preserved today in Addison Hall, a climate-controlled room in the church, the books are available to view upon request, and represent the oldest library west of Quebec.
The window over the altar also bears a special distinction. Installed in 1840, it is the oldest stained glass window in Canada west of Quebec. Interestingly, a number of symbols on the lower parts are Masonic in nature.
Take the time to wander the grounds and read the inscriptions on some of the headstones. They are windows into the past, and relate some fascinating historical stories.
One of the stones you will find belongs to Colonel William Kingsmill (1794-1876), a prominent figure in early Upper Canada. He was commanding officer of the Durham militia, Sheriff of Niagara, and a member of the provincial legislature in Toronto. But his most interesting distinction is that veteran of the Napoleonic Wars was one of the officers entrusted to guard Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile on the island of St. Helena and, during that time together on the isolated island, became good friends with his erstwhile enemy.
Another veteran on the Napoleonic Wars was Richard Hiscott (whose magnificent home stands on Prideaux Street). Hiscott fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and therefore played a role in the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. After the war, in search of a new start and new adventures, he came to Canada and settled in Niagara where he died in 1820.
Elsewhere, we find the stone of an interesting figure known as Old Riley. William Riley was an African-American, likely a former slave, who served with the British in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, even though he would have been about 50 at the time of the latter conflict. Though there was widespread prejudice at the time, he found a welcoming home in Newark and over his 80 years living there became a popular figure about town. Old Riley lived to 106 years of age. His granddaughter owned the home that now houses Trish Romance’s gallery.
Under the canopy of ageless trees one finds the tragic headstone of Sarah Ann Tracey, who was only 7 years old when she died in 1840. She was the child of Thomas Tracey, the troop sergeant major of the King’s Dragoon Guards stationed at Fort George, and his wife Hannah. There are plenty of other graves for children as young as Sarah Ann in St. Mark’s Cemetery, many even younger, so what makes her so interesting? Many have come to believe she is the mischievous child spirit encountered so frequently over the years at Fort George.
Another tragic story surrounds a somber memorial erected in the grounds by the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. July 11, 1874, dawned beautifully and so seven lads, the product of wealthy Toronto families, decided to take their yacht, the Foam, across Lake Ontario to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Sadly, a sudden storm swept across the lake later that afternoon, descending upon the yacht before the boys could find a safe port. They raced for Niagara-on-the-Lake but couldn’t outrun the waves and winds that swamped the vessel within sight of the Niagara River and drove her to into Lake Ontario’s depths. All seven boys died. When their bodies were later recovered, they were buried at St. Mark’s Cemetery and a memorial erected to honor their untimely deaths.
A spectacular church, St. Mark’s reflects Niagara-on-the-Lake’s rich history. It tells stories in stone—both in the building itself and the headstones huddled in its sacred shadow—and provides an invaluable window into the past.
Written By: Andrew Hind