Dr. Lucius Oille’s Greenbelt Legacy

 on February 2, 2024

The sudden resurrection of the Ontario Greenbelt from the dead points to the significance of the life of an Anglican Holy Person, Dr. Lucius Oille. (October 3, 1830 – August 13, 1903). Keeping urban sprawl away from its landscape protects Oille’s legacy of a waterworks, which now supplies clean drinking water for several communities in Niagara.

In developing the St. Catherines waterworks, Oille acted about a decade following Louis Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria in 1861. Instead of using wells contaminated by fecal matter, which spread diseases, clean water originating in Lake Erie passing above St. Catharines through the Welland Canal was employed.

A gravity powered drinking water reservoir sheltered by forests in a park-like setting was created. Downstream from the treatment plant a spectacular recreational system evolved. It includes De Cew Falls and much of what it now is, Short Hills Provincial Park.

As Chair of the Waterworks Commission (which controlled the city’s water until the formation of regional government in 1970), Oille commissioned an artist to sketch the beauty of this landscape. Featuring rapids flowing through the rugged giants of an old growth forest, the sketch was published in an annual report.

Lands upstream of the reservoir were recently threatened by urban development in Thorold which would have unleashed polluted storm water into it. Such proposals have ended since site alteration here was prohibited through Greenbelt designation.

Originally established for St. Catharines, Oille’s system now provides drinking water also for the communities of Thorold, Lincoln, and Niagara-on-the- Lake. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s incorporation was a vivid lesson of the dangers of pollution, coming after the revelations of contamination by leaks in the infamous American Love Canal.

A lifelong abstainer and non-smoker, Oille was motivated in part by the situation where contamination was so common, beer was the safest drinking beverage. It had long been promoted by concerned Christians as an alternative to Gin. Such concerns to curb alcoholism were important in the Anglican laity group, which was involved in the founding of Oille’s parish, the Guild of the Iron Cross.

The Guild of the Iron Cross functioned as a devout Christian version of Oille’s secular, secretive Masonic Lodge. Members were pledged to, “resist Intemperance, Impurity and Profanity.” Youth were encouraged on this path through a church camp near Fort Mississauga, where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario.

Oille lived through all the dramatic developments which led to the building of St. Barnabas which continues its holy mission today on Queenston Street. In 1870 the first Vesper services were held in what was originally a mission for St. George’s Church. It was located on the second floor of a building that was a Grocery Store. The Boys Choir nurtured by the camp fostered high standards for Church music, a goal of the High Church movement of the era.

At the same time as Oille campaigned for pure water, the St. Barnabas mission developed into a simple wooden Church on John Street, (now Tasker), in 1875. In 1893, the wooden church was moved about a mile to the new stone Church on Queenston Street, to become the parish hall.

Obituaries to Oille make it clear how his dramatic works were based on deep profound love for people. He was seen as being concerned with not only the mere health but “the problems of the patient.” They viewed him as a “confessor and advisor.” His love for animals was shown in the design for his downtown drinking fountain which has lower bowls so dogs can get water.

Oille also established Niagara’s streetcar-based transit system. Lacking any significant personal wealth, he was able to build it through his good credit rating. While it was able to pay its own way while he lived before automobiles were common, it eventually became a publicly owned enterprise. This evolved first through the Canadian National Railway, which was transferred to municipalities in 1961.

The contemporary controversies over the Greenbelt point to the most heartfelt aspects of the tribute to Oille in his obituaries. One noted how, “Dr. Oille was always the constant and zealous and incorruptible guardian of the interests of the people, and it is he, who we owe the unsparing and ceaseless vigilance during his term on the waterworks commission through which we posses such a magnificent waterworks system.” One distinctive feature of the system is the Faucet Falls, which provides a flow of water for fish habitat whenever the main flow at De Cew Falls is turned off.

A lifelong bachelor who lived frugally, Oille died in conditions described in an obituary tribute as “penniless.” All accumulated fortune that was left from a life of compassionate charity went to pay for the memorial window to the right of the altar at St. Barnabas Church. Its donation came as a pleasant surprise to the parish.

There have been no additions to the Canadian Calendar of Holy Persons since 1994. Oille’s addition could make the day of his death, August 13th, a time of celebration of his works motivated by a profound Christian love of humanity and creation. This includes De Cew Falls and its gorge, whose waters are protected through the Greenbelt.

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