Ghosts, Cults, Students and Art: the Bizarre History of the Fairacres Mansion

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“Fairacres” mansion exterior, now the Burnaby Art Galley

Anyone who has dealt with an older home knows that they often come with a lot of baggage, usually in the form of sketchy electrical work, leaking roofs, and/or plumbing issues. However, some historic houses come with a different kind of baggage, that of the supernatural sort.

Such is the case of “Fairacres Mansion” (also called Ceperley House), which has been the home of the Burnaby Art Gallery (BAG) for the last 50 years. Built in 1911 on the north shore of Deer Lake, it began as the retirement estate for Grace Ceperley and her husband, real estate tycoon Henry T. Ceperley. Fairacres is believed by many to be haunted. Phantom phone calls, faint musical sounds, chilling presences, and items mysteriously being moved have been a few of the experiences of some gallery staff over the years.

Grace Ceperley was a gentle soul who adored spending time in her extensive gardens. Half of the 20-acre Fairacres estate was devoted to landscaping. The Ceperley’s lived uneventfully there until Grace’s death in 1917. Since Grace used the money she inherited from her brother-in-law A.G. Ferguson to purchase the land for Fairacres, the deed for the property was in her name. Grace left the house to her husband Henry, but there was a provision in her will that stipulated if it was ever sold or when Henry died, the proceeds of the sale of the estate were to go to the creation of a children’s playground in Stanley Park.

It is at this point that the story of Fairacres turns a little cloudy. It’s unclear that after Henry Ceperley sold Fairacres in 1923 to one-time Mayor of Vancouver Frederick Buscombe that the conditions of Grace’s will were strictly followed. It is for this reason (denying a dead woman’s bequest) that some believe that the “wispy shape” of a woman in white that’s been seen by BAG staff over the years is the ghost of Grace herself. (Eventually, $13,000 of Grace’s estate did go towards the creation of the children’s park known as Ceperley Park Playground.)

  • North shore of Deer Lake showing Fairacres ca. 1921 (CoV Archives - Out N546.1)
    North shore of Deer Lake showing Fairacres ca. 1921 (CoV Archives - Out N546.1)
  • South side of “Fairacres”
    South side of “Fairacres”
  • Gallery interior. Some original details still remain.
    Gallery interior. Some original details still remain.
  • Heritage History sign for “Fairacres”
    Heritage History sign for “Fairacres”
  • Stainglass window detail.
    Stainglass window detail.

After Buscombe’s occupancy, Fairacres experienced a couple of brief stints as a private home and was used as a tuberculosis annex for Vancouver General Hospital. The last family to own the mansion, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Munro, sold Fairacres to the Order of St. Benedict in 1939. The monks lived a peaceful existence at Fairacres until 1954, when Mission’s Westminster Abbey was completed and the monks moved there.

In 1955, another “religious group”, a cult known as The Temple of the More Abundant Life, headed by convicted bigamist William Franklin Wolsey, bought the mansion to serve as the cult’s church and school.

The cult involved bizarre and violent practices ranging from bigamy to incest. They also ran an unaccredited school that allegedly practiced ritual and physical abuse of its students. Wolsey, who called himself “Archbishop John I”, was wanted throughout the United States on a variety of charges including embezzlement and spousal abuse. In 1959, the Vancouver Sun newspaper exposed Wolsey’s shady background and his “bogus church and school” in a series of articles that resulted in a government investigation. The school closed in 1960 and Wolsey fled the country.

In the mid-1960s, Fairacres briefly became an “Animal House” of sorts when it was leased to a university fraternity, Delta Epsilon. It was then acquired by the City of Burnaby in 1966 and renovated for use as the Burnaby Art Gallery as a 1967 Centennial project.

With such a storied and sometimes dark history, it is no wonder that the mansion now experiences its fair share of other worldly activity. For a more in-depth look at the history of Fairacres (Ceperley House) check out the “Ghostly Gatherings” chapter of Eve Lazarus’ book At Home with History: the secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage Houses.

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