A Tour to Christ Church’s Past

The annual Grove Hill Cemetery Tours were held this year on September 8, and the event turned into an unofficial celebration of Christ Episcopal Church in Oil City. The cemetery dates to 1870 and each year the tours feature current residents of Oil City portraying past residents of Oil City.

This year’s tour booklet featured 32 figures from the past and at least 10 were members of Christ Episcopal Church. A local photographer, whose family provided the land the current church building sits on, was also included in the booklet. Of the eleven people portrayed, three were members of Christ Episcopal Church. Three of the eleven re-enactors were also members of the church.

Becca Swartzlander, treasurer of the Altar Guild, portrayed Miss Margaret Reid. Margaret’s great-great-grandfather served as interpreter for Chief Cornplanter of the Seneca Indian tribe and held power-of-attorney for Cornplanter. Her great-uncle and father were involved in the Reid Gas Engine Company, pioneers in oilfield equipment.  However, Miss Reid was best known for her nearly 40 years of teaching in the Oil City Schools. She wrote A History of Christ Church in 1987 and is responsible for the excellently maintained historical records of the church.

Jocelind Gant, the member of our congregation responsible for our Second Harvest Food ministries, portrayed Carrie Peterson, one of the most unique stories told this year. Peterson was born into slavery in Virginia around 1850 and came to Oil City in the early 1860s. It is unclear if she came as a fugitive slave or as a free woman.  She had some association with Robert and Isaac Mann, late of Allegheny City. Robert was one of the founders of the AME Church in Oil City and Isaac wrote for an African-American newspaper in Harrisburg.

I portrayed the Rev. James H. B. Brooks, 6th Rector of Christ Episcopal Church, serving from 1883 until his death in 1901. Brooks was pastor during the building of the current church and during the Fire and Flood of 1892. The church building was used as a hospital during this disaster. Father Brooks’ health never totally recovered from that incident. In researching the life of Rev. Brooks, it was noted that the two seminaries and three other parishes he served still survive today, with some mergers involved.

Some of the other members of the church from the 19th and early 20th century in the tour booklet included Thomas Cowell, Kenton Chickering, John Campbell, John Tonkin, Margaret Winifred Tonkin, Thomas Porteous, Annie Clark, and William Lay. Winifred Tonkin died in a tragic railway accident in 1901 and is memorialized in one of the church’s windows, and the Winifred Tonkin Guild still provides for the needy of the community, a living memorial to her memory.

Cowell, Chickering, and Campbell all served on the Vestry during Father Brooks’ tenure. His Vestry actually resembled a Board of Directors meeting for Standard Oil. Christ Church’s Vestry records indicate that Father Brooks wisely indicated upon arrival that he would leave all temporal matters in the hands of his Vestry.  I read through about 50 years worth of Vestry notes (preserved by Miss Reid) before the tours, trying to learn more of Brooks and his time here. What I found was a man that served as pastor to a community, calling on sick and injured people that had no affiliation with any congregation. The oil business was not a stable business, with booms and busts and fortunes made and lost. Yet the Vestry had no issue with committing to building a new church building in those uncertain times, when the budget often was at a deficit.  Kenton Chickering’s great-grandson, Ken, still spends some summer months in our area, away from his home parish in Houston. He was kind enough to lend me his library of materials about Oilwell Supply, founded by Kenton, and I got to spend the winter with those materials. Before he returned to Houston this year, I was able to provide a copy of the beautiful tribute paid to his great-grandfather by his fellow Vestrymen upon his death in 1908.

I have always loved history and I always will. I truly appreciate the work that Margaret Reid did preserving our church records. I treasure my friendship with Ken and enjoyed the records of the past he shared with me.  Margaret was also instrumental in our sponsorship at the church of a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 1980s. Ken has spent his life working in Texas in a career that has little to do with his family’s oilfield origins, but is still an Episcopalian. Both appreciate the past but learned to embrace change. An appreciation for history does not mean we must live in the past. It should enable us to learn from that past. Ignoring the past and living in the past both have bad outcomes. We live in exciting times, faced with changes and challenges and opportunities in the Church and the world that our ancestors could not have imagined.

Some words from the poet T. S. Eliot will serve us well as we approach what promises to be an exciting diocesan convention:

“And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.  The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.”

The Rev. Mark Elliston is vicar of Christ Church, Oil City.

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