One Year On …

Around two miles west of the incorporated township of Lucan-Biddulph on an embankment beside County Road 20, rest the crumbling structure of what once was a narrow span railway bridge. Referred to as ‘hole in the wall’ by Ron Brown of  “Nobody knows Ontario like Ron Brown” fame, this was the site of Lucan Crossing. Here, dear reader, the Grand Trunk line to Sarnia crossed over the tracks of the London-Huron & Bruce (L-H&B) railway line at right angles. Now if we delve more into the railway romance, there are stories to be told and cherished. How this short yet rough railbed of L-H&B went about earning its own name “Let ‘er Hit and Bounce” from the irate passengers of a bumpy ride. And how a refusal to pay any grant by the Township of Biddulph and the Town of Lucan forced the surveyors of The Great Western Railway to move the tracks 2 miles west of Lucan. They did not stop at this, but to add a perfect seasoning to already sore wounds this very intersection was named Lucan Crossing. Now these shall be the stories for another day as this article, dear reader, is not about the railway footprint in Lucan.

Lucan Crossing: The Grand Trunk’s original historic route to Sarnia
Lucan Crossing: Facing north from where another line of London-Huron & Bruce Railway crossed at right angles

That bright morning of August 2017 as I photographed the crumbling bridge of Lucan Crossing, there wasn’t much left of the railway footprint. GTR tracks were lifted long ago leaving behind a desolate embankment. Other than the remains of a trestle bridge in nearby Lucan Conservation Area there’s no sign of the erstwhile L-H&B tracks which once ran from London to Wingham. Away from this fading railway heritage in the very heart of the Town of Lucan there are other landmarks surviving to commemorate another tale, more durable than the fading railway, The Donnelly Massacre.

Coins on a Lucan Tombstone

Why are there coins on this grave?
People leave them as mark of respect for those buried here.
mhmm … how about we also place a coin here?
Of course! let’s get one from the car.

Ahmad (my 9 year old son) was talking to me as we stood in St. Patrick’s Cemetery on the Roman Line around 2 miles south of Lucan. On a warm sunny May afternoon we had just visited the Lucan Area Heritage & Donnelly Museum and the replicas of Donnelly House and the Barn beside the museum. Ahmad was much intrigued by the Donnellys’ story and took keen interest during the guided tour of the Heritage House, a replica meticulously built on the available details from the actual Donnelly household. Driving back to London as we stopped near St. Patrick’s Church, Ahmad wanted to visit the grave with me. Having placed a penny on the tombstone as a mark of respect we stood there for a while, silent as I reflected on the events of a cold February night of 1880 when five of the Donnelly household were massacred in cold blood by the drunk vigilantes of their town. A hundred and forty two years on, visitors at the Donnelly gravestone still leave coins, some chip off a piece from the tombstone as a memento, to commemorate helpless souls perished on the night of Lucan’s deadliest bloodbath. 

St. Patrick’s Church Cemetery | Roman Line outside of Lucan
Donnelly grave (the grey one towards right) is on the western edge of the cemetery
Donnelly Tombstone: Front | Note the word “Murdered” is now replaced with “Died”
Donnelly Tombstone: Reverse | Visitors leave coins as mark of respect

The Khaki Patch – Islamic Cemetery of London

In 2015 I immigrated to Canada to join my family and it was then I made London my home. With interest in history and being a railway enthusiast, soon I was exploring the surroundings looking for stories while searching the remnants of an intricate web of ghost railway lines. Lucan’s name would pop up often and it was less due to railway heritage and more for the infamous Donnelly massacre. It was amazing how one of South Western Ontario’s deadliest ‘unsolved’ murder of five of a family was preserved as ‘hometown history’ and was remembered to date and reflected upon by the Lucan community. Little did I know that the memories of this event will soon be overwhelmed with a more recent incident of hate and terror, and of all the places in the surroundings, it would be my hometown London.

Jun 6th of 2022 marked one full year when intoxicated by anti-Muslim rage a truck ran over members of Afzaal family on the sidewalk beside Hyde Park road, killing four and seriously injuring the fifth. As the news came out, the initial reaction was that of shock and disbelief. And then Londoners came out of their homes and visited the site of attack placing flowers to show their support and register a protest to a hate motivated terrorist attack. Two days later, on Jun 8th a vigil was organized at the London Muslim Mosque on Oxford Street. Canadians from all faiths and ethnicities came out in vocal support of those slain in the name of hate and Islamophobia. In the vigil where the mourners from other faiths outnumbered Muslims there was empathy and compassion on display. In the scorching heat of a hot summer day, there was free ice cream and Sardars, our brothers from the Sikh panth carried the crates of water bottles on their shoulders distributing water to everyone. Prime Minister and other political leaders addressed the gathering emphasizing the Canadian diversity and resolved to fight Islamophobia. A few days later as the shock subsided and grief started sinking in, the dead in their caskets draped in Canadian flags were mourned in a public funeral and later interred in the Islamic Cemetery of London. When the first roses of the season bloomed in my garden, I took a few with me and placed them towards a corner of a large khaki patch formed by freshly dug four graves in the cemetery at White Oak Road. I prayed and grieved and stood in silence for the departed.

Islamic Cemetery London ON | Canadian Flag marks One Year Anniversary of #OurLondonFamily
The dark green patch outlined by miniature poles marks the four graves | #OurLondonFamily

The First Anniversary

The memory of Donnelly massacre of Lucan in its transition overtime has seen the highs and lows of human nature. How we tend to hush up, sometimes conspire, other times shy away in retelling the unpleasant tales. In the subsequent years Lucan saw the massive tombstone originally erected for Donnellys in 1889 (the replica of which recreated for the CBC-TV Production now stands in Lucan Area Heritage & Donnelly Museum) was removed on orders from parish for attracting ‘unwanted’ attention. As the family replaced it with present day sombre headstone the ‘accusing word’ murdered could not find a place for the five dead from the night of the massacre and was replaced with ‘died’. Still, the memory of the Donnellys has stayed with the people of Lucan and in the words of Mayor Cathy Burghardt-Jesson (quoted in a 2020 article on ifpress.com), “It is a piece of history. As with any story, how do you make yourself better? You have to learn from the lessons history teaches you.”

Years ago, in the video coverage of the aftermath of a deadly shooting on the Friday prayer in a mosque of New Zealand, there was this lady, an eyewitness interviewed by Bloomberg. As she revisited the events, her face in a brow of grief, teary eyed, shaking with emotion she almost broke down as she said, “I am 66 and I never thought in my life I would live to see something like this. Not in New Zealand.” Dear reader, I never thought I would live to see something like this. Not in London, not in Canada, yet it happened and a year has passed since. This year on 6th of June as we Canadians and Londoners unite to commemorate #OurLondonFamily much has changed. The khaki patch of four graves side by side, outlined by four miniature Canadian flags in the Islamic Cemetery has turned lush green. The grief for the dead has subsided and the bodily wounds of the sole survivor must have healed. But that tinge of regret, like a soaring wound on our hearts has stayed. May we carry this on us all our lives, and may this scar on our conscience make us stronger, every year as we come out to commemorate #OurLondonFamily and resolve to fight Islamophobia. We will never forget #OurLondonFamily, for it will keep reminding us of our resolve to knit a community based on love and empathy for everyone.

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