Features / Tales of historical hauntings

Monks, orphans, woman in white and mad 'archbishop' haunt Burnaby estate

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Listen: 'This is making me angry'

Investigators from the Vancouver Paranormal Society recently asked some questions in the middle of the night at the James Cowan Theatre, and their recorder picked up a voice saying "this is making me angry". They say none of them heard it at the time.


Nicole Vieira says she had just started working at Burnaby's Shadbolt Centre for the Arts more than 20 years ago when she first heard the phantom children screaming and crying.

She didn't know then that the James Cowan Theatre and an adjacent mansion known as Ceperley House were built on the former site of an orphanage run by a cult leader running from a criminal past.

It wasn't until she started asking other staff about the inexplicable noises that she learned the history of the place, including about William Frank Wolsey, a convicted U.S. bigamist who bought the property in 1955 and fraudulently dubbed himself Archbishop John I.

"He did horrible things to those boys. He abused them physically, sexually, verbally, mentally," Vieira told Metro on a recent tour of what is widely regarded as one of B.C.'s most haunted places.

"If they didn't recite the Lord's Prayer good enough he would lock them in closets up in Ceperley House for days; like five, six-year-old little kids. I'm sure a lot of kids died here at Ceperley House, because of the way they were treated, and what I have seen and heard."

 Grace Ceperley. (Burnaby Archives)

Burnaby Archives

Grace Ceperley. (Burnaby Archives)

Ceperley House, a three-storey, 32-room mansion, was built in 1910 by Henry and Grace Ceperely, a couple of wealthy real estate tycoons. Grace died there of an illness in 1917, and Vieira, who is a technical supervisor in the theatre, said many people have seen a figure in white walking the grounds.

"A lot of people believe that she comes and wanders around trying to consol these poor children," she said.

Before it was an orphanage, the house was used as a dormitory and sanctuary by a group of Benedictine monks. It is now the Burnaby Art Gallery, and Marisa Ferrari, who works there, said several psychics have recently been called in to try to calm the rattled nerves of new staffers.

"There's a few psychics that say there's a monk, maybe a couple of them, and a little girl, and I feel Grace [Ceperley] is here," she said. "The other psychics say there's another man here trying to take over the building."

She said nobody who works in the art gallery wants to be the last to leave at night.

"I've heard walking in the upper gallery, run upstairs and there's nobody there," she said. "I've heard big, loud bangs when there's nobody left in the building, and it's really unsettling, because it's so loud and you know there's no one here, so you just want to get out of the building."

Scott Williamson, director of the Vancouver Paranormal Society, has been to the property to investigate three times in the past few months, and claims to have snapped a photo of a ghostly figure in the theatre.

"The evidence we've gotten from there is second to none. I haven't seen or heard anything like it, except for the ghost-hunter shows you see on TV," he said.

"There's just a feeling of another presence in that place."

Strange happenings at Ceperley House and the James Cowan Theatre:

  • mysterious voices, screams and laughter
  • footsteps heard in empty hallways and stairwells
  • lights and electrical appliances turning on and off
  • doors that lock, unlock, open and close
  • padlocks on doors that rattle violently when staff pass by
  • thuds coming from within the walls and ceiling
  • paintings leaping from their place on the wall to the floor, occasionally striking gallery patrons
  • tools in the basement workshop disappearing and reappearing in different places
  • kitchen utensils which have moved on their own accord in front of several witnesses
  • electrical interference with audio and video equipment during town meetings
  • outdoor sprinklers turning on and off by themselves

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