HISTORIC ST. MARYS - 162 Church Street South

  • History   Wednesday, August 25, 2021   Mary Smith

This week’s photograph, a view of the house at 162 Church Street South from the southwest, was taken last spring by next-door neighbour Dave Pullen. Like so many other St. Marys houses, it is built into a hillside. This angle reveals features about the house that are not noticeable to passers-by. There are high, west-facing windows, giving the occupants a spectacular view over the Thames River valley, and doors leading out from the basement, another full level at the back.
The house was built in 1905 by Henry Lincoln Rice for his wife Charlotte (Carter) Rice. Charlotte’s father, George Carter, was a prominent grain merchant and mill owner. Following his death in 1889, Henry and Charlotte had moved into the Carter family home at 224 Jones Street East to be company for Charlotte’s mother, Elizabeth. Henry, trained as a classics scholar, had been brought into the grain business by his father-in-law and, after George’s death, he and his two brothers-in-law continued in the business as partners. They all lived close to the Carter home; this part of St. Marys was very much the heart of the family empire.
However, Elizabeth Carter, the matriarch, died in 1902 and Charlotte felt she could not be happy in the house where her beloved mother had died. She wanted to move and Henry agreed to have an appropriate new residence built for the family. He purchased property along the west side of Church Street South and selected the lot to suit the house he had in mind. Red brick on a deep, limestone foundation, it was designed with the main entrance porch on the south side. The porch had a second-level covered balcony. The bay window on the west wall, visible in this photograph, provided a view to the west and the setting sun – Rice’s specific requirement. The east, street-facing façade had windows from the reception and dining rooms with limestone sills and lintels and the upper floor had two bay windows overlooking Church Street and Cadzow Park. Among its attractive features were many stained glass windows, beautiful fireplaces and decorative wooden sunbursts in the front and back gable ends.
Henry and Charlotte had two children. By the time the Rices moved to Church Street in 1905, their daughter, Kathleen, age 23, had just graduated from university with a degree in mathematics and was about to start a teaching career. A few years later, she would go west to teach and become intrigued with exploration and the search for precious minerals. Kathleen Rice went on to become the first female prospector/miner in northern Manitoba. Her younger brother, Lincoln, lived with his parents on Church Street until he was ready to attend university. He served overseas during World War I and when he returned home, retained his military connections and became a colonel in the reserves. He was appointed county registrar in 1923 and held that position until he died in 1952.
In December 1914, however, a series of circumstances required Henry and Charlotte to sell their splendid new house and return to the family home on Jones Street. By November 1915, 162 Church Street had become the property of Joseph Meighen, a retired farmer. He and his wife, Mary, had originally farmed in Blanshard Township near Anderson but they had lived in St. Marys for 30 years, operating a dairy farm on the western edge of town. They had moved from the township so that their six children could go to high school. Their oldest son, Arthur, took full advantage of this opportunity. After his years at the St. Marys Collegiate, he attended the University of Toronto, graduating in 1896 and, like Kathleen Rice, began as a mathematics teacher. Meighen also was lured westward. He moved to Manitoba, studied and then practised law, and developed an interest in politics. In 1908, he was elected to the House of Commons as the Conservative member from Portage la Prairie and rose to increasingly significant cabinet posts in Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government. He played a dominant role in the Union Government during World War I.
Arthur Meighen probably had little time to visit his parents during these years but he kept in close touch. They would have relished his success and enjoyed seeing his name frequently in the newspapers. St. Marys people were generally proud of this local son as well although there were some major policy issues that did not gain universal approval. In 1917, Meighen helped devise the Military Service Act, legislation enabling conscription. Many St. Marys area people – especially the farmers (as the Meighens had been themselves) – strongly opposed this measure. Still, the war ended, Arthur Meighen weathered the opposition and when Borden retired in 1920, the party chose him as successor. Meighen became the ninth Prime Minister of Canada.
In May 1920, Joseph and Mary Meighen sold their home in St. Marys and moved to Ottawa to be closer to their illustrious son. For the next six and a half decades, 162 Church Street South would be known as the O’Brien house. Dennis O’Brien, a merchant, had been born on a farm in McGillivray Township. After finishing school, he worked in a bank and then operated a general store in Centralia. He decided to purchase a men’s clothing business in St. Marys and moved with his wife, Mary Quarry O’Brien, and two little daughters – Frances, age six, and two-year-old Marion. A third daughter, Madelon, arrived in 1915. Soon, D. L. O’Brien’s “Gentlemen’s Furnishings” on the southwest corner of Queen and Church Streets was a fixture in the downtown.
After he bought the house in 1920, Dennis O’Brien did find one major shortcoming to his new home. Visible in the photograph is a section on the south wall of the limestone foundation where a larger entrance has been filled in with concrete blocks. It used to be the door to a garage under the house, accessible by a steep and narrow laneway from Church Street. O’Brien became so frustrated trying to manoeuvre his automobile into this garage that he built a concrete block, five-bay garage complex, attached to his downtown business. These garages still stand on the west side of Church near Queen.
Both Dennis and Mary O’Brien were from Irish Catholic families, settled for generations in southwestern Ontario. When they came to St. Marys, they brought with them a tradition of service to both their community and their church. Dennis O’Brien was a charter member of the St. Marys Rotary Club, a member of the public library and separate school boards and served on the Board of Health. Mary Quarry was a graduate of Ottawa Teachers College and had taught in Chatham before her marriage. In St. Marys, she was an active member of the Catholic Women’s League and other church organizations. Their parents’ various interests and commitments must have created an interesting background as the O’Brien daughters were growing up through the 1920s.
After high school, Marion became a registered nurse. Madelon attended Brescia College and did office work before her marriage to John Forristal. But it is certainly Frances, the eldest, that many St. Marys residents remember best. She also graduated from Brescia College at Western University, and then the Ontario College of Education. In 1932, she began teaching English and Biology at her former high school, St. Marys Collegiate Institute. She remained there until her retirement in 1973. Decades of students remember her as a well-prepared and patient teacher who genuinely cared about her students. She was also admired and respected by her colleagues, many of whom became dear friends.