The Fairacres Mansion has a dark history and is supposedly home to many haunted happenings. (Heritage Burnaby)

The chilling tale of Burnaby’s very own haunted mansion

Fairacres Mansion has a history filled with twists and turns.

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October 29, 2021 | 5:00 am

Every home has a tale to tell.

The Fairacres Mansion, also known as Burnaby’s historic Ceperley House, was once considered one of the grandest homes in the entire Lower Mainland.

You may recognize its stunning Edwardian architecture and design, as it’s been home to the Burnaby Art Gallery for over 50 years.

But the story of Fairacres begins in 1911 when it was built as a retirement home for American businessman Henry Ceperley and his wife, Grace.

The Ceperleys

According to the City of Burnaby, the couple purchased the lot, which was home to a sprawling strawberry farm on the north side of Deer Lake, from George R Clayton in 1909.

Over the next two years, the Ceperleys watched their dream retirement home take shape. The mansion caught the attention of many, including local media. In 1912, Burnaby’s local paper provided details of the home’s grand features.

“Fairacres, Mr. H.T. Ceperley’s palatial home with its fine lawns, terraces, rockeries, greenhouses, pumping station for irrigation, lodge stables and outhouses, costing $150,000 is alone worth a visit to Deer Lake,” said the publication.

“The estate comprises twenty acres, ten of which are landscaped. Much credit is due to Mr. Legge, the landscape gardener, for his artistic temperament. A fine glimpse of Deer Lake is to be had from the grounds.”

Fairacres Mansion
The Ceperley family in 1915: HT Ceperley, Grace Ceperley and their daughter Ethelwyn standing with Ethelwyn’s three children. (Heritage Burnaby)

Author Jo-Anne Christensen provides a glimpse into the lives and personalities of Henry and Grace. In her book, Ghost Stories from British Columbia, Christensen says Henry was fond of throwing parties and entertaining guests from around town. Grace, on the other hand, was quiet and often kept to herself. She enjoyed spending her time outdoors in the estate’s sprawling garden. She also loved caring for her children and was said to be passionate about supporting causes involving youth.

Grace passed away in 1917, at the age of 54. Following her death, it was revealed that she was the owner of the home as she used money from her brother-in-law to buy the property. She passed the home on to Henry but with one condition: if he died or sold the estate, the proceeds were to be used to build a children’s playground in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

haunted
Grace Ceperley standing in the garden at Fairacres Mansion. (City of Burnaby Archives)

Henry ended up selling the home in 1922, but the funds did not go towards fulfilling Grace’s request in her will, at least right away.

Vancouver-based author and reporter Eve Lazarus, tells the Beacon that the Ceperley playground was built after Henry’s death. The playground can still be found near Second Beach in Stanley Park, but many of the original features are gone.

Lazarus says the playground, which cost $13,000 to build at the time, was “gorgeous” and featured a giant slide, a wading pool, sports courts, and more.

“It was much nicer than what we’ve got today,” she says.

While Grace’s dying wish was eventually fulfilled, Henry’s departure from Fairacres marked the beginning of the home’s troubled history.

A parade of tenants—and Fairacres’ “darkest days”

Christensen writes that in the “forty-five years that followed, Fairacres was destined to be a house for a parade of tenants — and not all would treat her kindly or bring positive energy to the house.”

Following Henry’s vacancy, the home was occupied by two private owners. It then served as a tuberculosis ward for Vancouver General Hospital. Then from 1939 to 1954, Fairacres was occupied by monks with the Order of St Benedict.

But Christensen says when the Order of St Benedict moved out, Fairacres’ “darkest days” began.

In 1955, a so-called “religious group” called the Temple of More Abundant Life made Fairacres their home. The group was actually a cult led by William Franklin Wolsey, who went by “Archbishop John I.”

Fairacres Mansion
William Franklin Wolsey in 1959. (Heritage Burnaby)

Wolsey was by all accounts a bad man. Christensen states warrants for his arrest were issued for multiple charges including bigamy, assault, and extortion.

“For several years, Archbishop John conducted his atrocities in the spacious rooms of Fairacres. Children of the Temple’s school were taught that they would die if they did not believe what was taught them in the classroom,” writes Christensen.

“Youngsters who displeased or disappointed the archbishop in any way were subject to the cruellest of punishments, and every child was forced to participate in the unorthodox “Sex and Hygiene” course, which Archbishop John taught personally.”

Lazarus provides more bizarre details, adding the men in the cult are rumoured to have sported beards because they believed “facial hair acted as an antenna allowing them to pick up vibrations emitted by the universe.”

The cult was eventually outed by a Vancouver Sun reporter who exposed Wolsey for his crimes. He fled to the US and the house was once again vacant.

Fairacres Mansion
The Burnaby Art Gallery as it stands today. (City of Burnaby)

A few years later, Fairacres became a dormitory for a Simon Fraser University fraternity. Christensen writes that the craftsmanship and architecture of the home “could not have been less respected or appreciated” during this time.

In 1966, the City of Burnaby purchased the home and it became the Burnaby Art Gallery in 1967 to mark Canada’s Centennial of Confederation.

Ghostly residents

Although Fairacres is now home to collections and exhibits, its troubled history is rumoured to linger in its hallways and corridors.

“Most of the ghost sightings are of the original owner Grace Ceperley, which is no surprise,” says Lazarus. Grace has been spotted floating up the stairs and walking around the gallery, wearing what Lazarus describes as “flowing dresses in different colours.”

Some folks have also spotted a face in an upstairs window. Others have heard footsteps and seen windows opening and closing on the top floor of the home when no one else is present.

“And apparently people have noticed this lingering smell of perfume,” says Lazarus. “So that kind of seems like it could be Grace.”

But the paranormal activity doesn’t end with the ghost of Grace.

Lazarus says there have been “other strange things” that have happened including a sprinkler system that mysteriously turns on by itself when the home gets too crowded.

“And there’s been reports of a poltergeist in the basement and he apparently throws things around, the tools and stuff like that. People come to work and find a huge mess.”

There have also been reported sightings of a monk figure kneeling, which could be linked to the monastery that occupied the home.

Lazarus emphasizes these are just tales she has heard from others throughout the years but there have been past reports of art gallery employees feeling frightened by an ominous presence in the house.

In her book, Christensen references a 1986 edition of the Vancouver Sun, where the art gallery’s former director, Roger Boulet, stated that “people are uncomfortable in the building. No one likes to stay late by themselves.”

Whether the ghost stories or true or not, one thing is certain: Fairacres has a history filled with twists and turns. We’ll never truly know what goes on between those historic walls when all is quiet and dark.

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Simran Singh

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