Union Cemetery is a Real Spot of Beauty

From: Oshawa Daily Reformer 30 June 1927

Oldest Section of Cemetery Grew up About Old Brick Church of Which the Rev. Robert H. Thornton, D.D., was Founder and Life Long Pastor – Board of Governors Now Handles Cemetery Affairs

Union Cemetery, west of the municipal boundaries on King west is the other Oshawa Oshawa – a forever silent city of the dead.  Richly endowed by nature and adorned by skillful gardencraft, the solemn acres of the municipal necropolis couch their reminder of mortality’s common fate in stately beauty.  Its thousands of memorials link the wilderness days of Ontario County with its modern development.  The moss grown headstone of the pioneers are but a part of an empire which rules the hallowed dust of generations.

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The best local authorities find that the oldest section of what is now known as Union Cemetery grew up about the old Brick church of which the Rev. Robert H. Thornton, D.D., was the founder and life-long pastor.  St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of the United Church of Canada on Simcoe Street is the existing body of that pioneer stronghold of Christian worship.

About 1875, however, a company was formed to lay out the cemetery adjoining the elder burial place.  The company was known as the Union Cemetery Company, and functioned until 1922 when, owing to the beneficence of Mr. George W. McLaughlin, it and the older mortuary property were purchased and presented to the City of Oshawa, and along with that [part] went deeds to land which would provide for necessity of future expansion.

A Board of Governors was appointed and the financing of the cemetery on a perpetual upkeep basis was effected.  This system provides a trust fund which draws a percentage from the purchase price of each grave, perpetually set aside to the upkeep of the graves and memorials, and beautification of the cemetery in general.

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While this plan of financing works automatically only in the newer development, families interested in the older parts of the cemetery are permitted to endow their plots under the upkeep plan.  Many have taken advantage of this scheme, and it is expected that before very long only the very oldest sections of the united cemeteries will have their upkeep provided for out of community resources.

In 1924 the Union Cemetery Mausoleum was erected.  This beautiful citadel of death provides vaults for above-ground interment, both individually and for groups, even up to private rooms.  It has a central chapel through the stained glass window of which the sun’s light falls in a colourful benediction.  The basement of the mausoleum is the cemetery’s receiving vault for winter funerals.

The Board of Governors for 1927 include D.A. Valleay, chairman; A. J. Stalter, A.A. Crowle, and C.J. Wilcox.  The city being represented by the mayor by virtue of office.

The Oshawa Museum is pleased to partner with Union Cemetery in offering historical walking tours on the first Saturday of the Month, May to August, starting at 2pm.  For more info, please contact the Museum.

Scenes from the Cemetery is also returning in 2019 – Sept 7 & 8! Tickets on sale later this summer.

Sister Act: The story of Clarissa and Sarah Terwilliger

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

In almost every town there are those people who are known by their behaviours or actions as eccentrics.  In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters were certainly regarded as somewhat unusual, and maybe even eccentric.

For much of its history, Oshawa, Ontario, has been known as an industrial hub and was often referred to as, “the Manchester (England) of Canada.”  However there was a time during the 1840s when the town gained notoriety as one of the centres for the Millerite craze.  During the winter of 1842-1843 many people were captivated by the teachings of William Miller, an American farmer and evangelist, who preached that the Second Advent of Christ would occur shortly.  His followers believed Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom, and the world would be destroyed by fire.  Stories of Oshawa farmers giving away all their livestock and farm implements were locally reported.  One of the most interesting stories connected with this period concerns the Terwilliger sisters, Sarah and her older sister Clarissa.

Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of local farmer Abraham Terwilliger.  They lived in a beautiful brick mansion on the main road in the east end of town.  Their family was among the earliest settlers in the area, arriving from New York State in about the year 1816.  The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in the Oshawa area for hosting free séances at their father’s home.  Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Pedlar attended one such séance with a party of unbelievers and noted, “that while some (of the party) may have been impressed with startling noises and rappings, others could see nothing in them but something to excite a subdued merriment.”[1]

An artist’s rendition, ES Shrapnel, of Sarah Terwilliger flying from the porch.  It comes from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant, published in Toronto in 1898 by William Briggs.

Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on February 14, 1843, the evening before the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch with the expectation of departing this world ahead of the fire and flying to heaven.  Thomas Conant, in his 1898 book Upper Canada Sketches, gives an account of what reportedly happened next:

…falling to the ground some fifteen feet she was shaken up severely and rendered wholly unfit to attend at all to the fires that were expected…  The wings were made of silk.  Though in the picture, they appear to do their work, they did not prevent the wearer falling to the ground about fifteen feet, and suffering the result in a broken leg.[2]

The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.

Unfortunately, other than this story of blind faith, the historical record does not tell us much more about the Terwilliger sisters.  While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Oshawa’s Union Cemetery.  Often overshadowed by her “flying” sister, I was determined to find out more about Clarissa in order to shed some light on her story.  I always felt sorry for Clarissa, partially because of the family’s notoriety even 175 years later and partly because I believe no one’s story should be lost to history.  After much research, I found Clarissa’s gravestone in the South Presbyterian section of the cemetery, located near one of the old access roads.  The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by graceful scrolling to the shoulders.  A floral wreath enclosing a delicate carving of clasping hands adorns the upper part of the memorial.  A few flowers additionally grace the side of the stone.  The stone reads, “In Memory of Clara Terry, Died.”  All in all, it is a fairly typical gravestone of the time, except for two things: the lack of any other information, including a death date (even though there is a spot for one) and the phrase at the bottom of the stone which reads “Erected by Clara Terry.”  Why would someone go to the trouble to make sure everyone knew that she erected her own gravestone?  Perhaps more research would shed some light on the mystery.  It was back to the archives I went to uncover more information.

Clara Terry headstone in Union Cemetery. Photo by Melissa Cole.

Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869.  Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married the much younger (by as much as 10 years), John Terry, a medicine peddler and farmer of East Whitby. In the 1871 Census of Canada, Clarissa and John lived in East Whitby Township with a young woman (possibly household help) named Harriet Young, then 23 years old.  Sadly, John and Clarissa’s union appears to have ended; by the 1881 census, John Terry is living only with Harriet, and they have a six-month-old boy named Frederick.  Clarissa is still listed as living in East Whitby, but she appears to have moved closer to her parents, Abraham and Alma Terwilliger.  I’ve often wondered if the end of Clarissa’s marriage prompted her to place the inscription about who was responsible for her gravestone, almost as if she was declaring her independence for all eternity.  Unfortunately, unless new information is unearthed, we will probably never know.  We do know that in 1891, Clarissa is living with Chauncy Terwilliger, likely a relative.  The 1901 census lists her as boarding with Alfreda Chatterson.

Clarissa passed away in Oshawa on July 17, 1905 — which begins the second mystery. Although her gravestone is present in Union Cemetery, official cemetery records show Clarissa is not actually buried there.  No birth or death dates are listed on the stone.  It can be surmised that, for whatever reason, Clarissa was buried in a still-unknown location.  She may have ultimately been laid to rest in another local cemetery with her parents.

Headstone detail – “Erected by Clara Terry.” Photo by Melissa Cole.

Hopefully, this is not the end of Clarissa’s story.  It’s unfortunate that even 175 years after her sister jumped from the porch in a religious frenzy, the Terwilliger sisters are still associated with this eccentric act.  I think it is important to separate Clarissa, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend, from the story of one of Oshawa’s most notorious episodes.  Her gravestone with the “Erected by Clara Terry” inscription is a reminder that she did not always conform to Victorian society’s expectations of women and did things her own way.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly in Spring 2017


[1] Samuel Pedlar, unpublished manuscript, Oshawa Museum; digitally available through the Oshawa Public Library.

[2] Thomas Conant, Upper Canada Sketches, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1898), 92; digitally available through archive.org.

You Asked, We Answered – Union Cemetery

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Throughout the summer, the Oshawa Museum has been offering guided tours of Union Cemetery, Oshawa’s largest cemetery.  We are grateful to our partners at Union Cemetery and the City of Oshawa for this collaboration.  The tours have been geographic (exploring a certain section) and thematic (looking at a topic or theme and telling stories related to it).


While extensive research goes into writing the tours, and while I feel I have a good grasp of our community’s history, inevitably, I’m asked questions that I cannot answer! It happens on every outreach tour I have delivered, and I’m thankful for it because with every question I have to seek answers for I, in turn, learn and find new discoveries.

Our Weekly Union Cemetery Tours aren’t the only cemetery programs we’ve planned for 2018.  Our popular Scenes from the Cemetery, dramatic tour, is returning on September 8 & 9.  For more information on this event, please visit our website: scenesfromthecemetery.wordpress.com.

Here is a sample of the questions I was asked and couldn’t answer off the top of my head.

Was Alexandra Luke related to another prominent Oshawa family named Luke?

Alexandra Luke was descended from Oshawa’s other Luke family as well as the Ritson family. She was born in Montreal and her family settled in Oshawa in 1914; her father was J. Herbert Ritson Luke, and her paternal grandparents were Jesse Pascoe Luke and Mary Ritson.  Her parents and paternal grandparents are buried in Union Cemetery.  Luke is resting inside the Mausoleum with his husband, Ewart McLaughlin (the son of George McLaughlin).  Alexandra Luke is notable because she was a Canadian abstract painter and member of Painters 11.


Do we/why don’t we talk about the Wolfenden family on tour? Their monument is located in South Presbyterian.

The Wolfenden family were early grave carvers in Whitby. Because they are based in Whitby, we do not collect these stories, however, our Executive Director has undertaken extensive research into early gravestone motifs and markers. Perhaps, because of her interest, she may explore them and other local businesses in a future blog post!


When was Thornton Road named?

This question is a little difficult to answer because it was part of East Whitby Township, and our records for the township aren’t nearly as extensive as for the City of Oshawa. We can best date street names by looking at City Directories, but the township isn’t always captured in these. The first directory we saw with Thornton Road listed in 1951.


While on the topic of Rev. Thornton, where was his house located?

It was located near the eastern boundaries of where Union Cemetery is today.


When did crematoriums start in the area?

The first crematorium in Canada was in Montreal at the Mount Royal Cemetery; Mount Pleasant was the first in Ontario who started in 1933.


What do oak leaves on headstones represent?

Strength, endurance, a long life.




Why were the Nursing Sisters called ‘Sisters’?

Nursing Sisters were called as such because some of the earliest nurses belonged to religious orders.



We were asked if Richard and Mary (Robinson) Mothersill were of any relation to the Mothersills who had a photo business in Oshawa in the 1970s, and it turns out they were.  Mary was the daughter of John & Ruth Robinson, namesakes of Robinson House.

Oshawa Museum Blog – 2017 Top 5 Posts

Happy New Year! Throughout 2017, we shared over 50 new articles on the Oshawa Museum Blog, showcasing so many different stories from our city’s past. We’re planning our new and dynamic posts for 2018, but to start the year, let’s look back at our top 5 posts of 2017


Union Cemetery Mausoleum

September was a busy month for programming at Union Cemetery. We have a fantastic partnership with the cemetery and we’re fortunate to use this space to remember citizens of the past. In advance of those engaging events, we shared the history of Union’s Mausoleum.

Did You Know: We are planning on delivering cemetery tours every Wednesday evening in July and August! Stay tuned to our Facebook Page for the dates and tour themes!

Oshawa in 1867

This was a milestone year for Canada – the 150th anniversary of the passing of the British North America Act, effectively creating the Dominion of Canada. To start the year, we shared our post Oshawa in 1867, looking at what our humble village looked like 150 years ago.

Memories of the Civic

In this post, our Visitor Experience Co-ordinator shared her memories of Oshawa’s Civic Auditorium, spending her childhood days growing up in the same neighbourhood. The Civic has a long history in our community, and this post stirred up memories for many readers.

Host Files: History of Dr. FJ Donovan Collegiate

Nostalgia seemed to be of great interest on the blog as another popular post was written by Visitor Host Karen about the history of FJ Donovan school.  Her post proved timely as the former high school was torn down in late 2017.

Where the Streets Get Their Names: Ontario Street

While this year was Canada’s sesquicentennial, it was also the 150th anniversary of Ontario’s province-hood.  To mark this anniversary, an early Street Name Story looked at Oshawa’s Ontario Street and the meaning behind the name.

These were our top 5 posts written in 2017; the top viewed post for the year was actually written a few years ago, again another street name story. Where the Streets Get Their Names: The Poppies on the Signs was our overall top viewed post for the year, receiving a lot of traction around Remembrance Day in November.

Thank you all for reading!

Union Cemetery’s Mausoleum

This article originally appeared in The Oshawa Daily Times, August 11, 1928. It has been supplemented with contemporary images, taken by curator Melissa Cole in 2016 (unless otherwise noted).

Like a beautiful chapel dedicated to sainted memories and undying affection, the Oshawa Mausoleum in the Union Cemetery invites the reverent glance of all who pass into or out of Oshawa on the westward approach of the Kingston Highway.

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(l): 1928, Oshawa Daily Times; (r) 2013, Oshawa Museum Oshawa Museum photograph

That noble structure is an essay in stone upon the beauty rather than the grimness of death. Sheltering within its stately corridors the remains of Oshawa citizens whose lives helped to shape its destinies, it stands a firm defiance against the ravages of time and mortal mutability.

The building of stately mausoleums in Ontario has been one of the significant phases of life following the late great war.  Many hearts torn by the tragedies of battlefields, where, at the best, loved ones have been left to keep eternal vigil on the field of their last supreme sacrifice, and where, at worst, stones which carry the poignant reminder that underneath lies one “Known to God” tell of those who gave even their identity in the battle for freedom, thoughtful men and women have turned with a sense of relief to the steadfast security and permanence of mausoleum interment for their loved ones.

The Canada Mausoleums, Ltd., with head offices in the Metropolitan Building, Adelaide and Victoria Street, Toronto, has rendered a splendid service to Canadians by fostering the erection of such beautiful structures as that which adorns the Union Cemetery. …

Floor Plan Oshawa Mausoleum

Oshawa’s mausoleum is built in an adaption of Egypto-Roman architecture.  Its chief beauty is that of line and mass, enhanced by the facade’s central arch which is as impressive as it is beautiful, and typifies the Christian belief that death itself is but a gateway to immortal happiness. The exterior is of cut Indiana limestone. Massive bronze doors open on the vestibule and central chapel at one end of which a window of beautiful stained glass, carrying its pictured message of comfort and hope, throws a jewelled arabesque of light upon the Wallace sandstone, bordered by black and green Missisquoi marble, which forms the floor of chapel and crypt inside.

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Two aisles, north and south with the building’s greater dimension, lined with the 310 permanent crypts, all but a small percentage of which are owned by local and district families.

Oshawa Museum photograph


At either end of the crypt corridors are private chapels, separated from the corridors by bronze gates, which are owned by prominent Oshawa families.


An important feature of the Oshawa mausoleum is that the basement contains forty-two crypts forming the Union Cemetery’s receiving vault for winter use. …

Union Cemetery’s many solemn beauties are enhanced by the Mausoleum, near which is the group of graves which closely resemble the war cemeteries of Canadian heroes who died in France. These graves are all headed with the Imperial War Graves’ headstones, and a central monument commemorates the sacrifices of those who, though living to return home, yet succumbed to the actual wounds or disabilities incident to service overseas.

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Oshawa Museum photograph


Scenes FB

Discover the stories of Oshawa’s Union Cemetery like never before. Actors bring history to life in Scenes from the Cemetery, a dramatic tour through Oshawa’s history.

Last year’s popular event returns with a look at Canada’s 150th! On Saturday September 9 and Sunday September 10, take a tour through Oshawa’s Union Cemetery with the dramatic tour Scenes from the Cemetery. On this walking tour, actors will bring stories to life, portraying people from Oshawa’s past, celebrating these exceptional individuals and how their actions led to Canada’s genesis and growth.

The event runs on Saturday September 9 and Sunday September 10, 2017; Show start times: 2pm; 2:20pm; 2:40pm; 3pm

Tickets are $20 each; tickets can be purchased in person at Guy House or online https://scenesfromthecemetery.com/tickets/