Vimy Ridge oak takes root in Norfolk County

A tree with a connection to Vimy Ridge has taken root in Norfolk County.

An oak sapling descended from acorns brought back from the pivotal First World War battle by a Canadian soldier was planted outside Historic Christ Church in Vittoria on Sunday.

The Vimy Memorial Oak Tree was dedicated in memory of the 18 Charlotteville residents who lost their lives in the world wars, including three young men who died at Vimy.

“With each passing year, it will grow to be a mighty memorial to all those who died serving our country,” said Dave Stelpstra of the Norfolk Remembers committee, which donated the sapling.

The “living monument” is the first official war memorial for the former township of Charlotteville, said committee member James Christison.

About 40 people gathered outside Christ Church to watch three generations of the Smith family plant the tree in memory of their ancestor, Elwood Smith, who Christison said “charged into history” at Vimy and lived to tell about it, returning to Vittoria to work as the village miller and postmaster.

“This is something so very important to us, the Smith family,” said Elwood’s great-granddaughter, Kate Smith.

“We’re so fortunate our grandfather survived until he was a ripe old age.”

The victory at Vimy is considered a defining moment in Canadian history, Christison noted.

“Many historians have described the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of the nation as we know it today,” he said.

This was true in a military sense — Vimy was the first place all four Canadian divisions fought together under Canadian commanders — and in terms of the nationalistic spirit that arose as Canadians took the strategic German-held ridge against steep odds, and at the cost of nearly 3,600 lives.

“We kind of came into our own,” Christison said of the battle’s aftermath. “Instead of being taken for granted, we were respected.”

Archdeacon Rick Jones said it was fitting for the sapling to be planted near Christ Church, which was the spiritual home for the local soldiers who fought at Vimy.

“This place bears witness to the values and hopes that made them leave home to sacrifice everything for their country, the Commonwealth, for freedom and their families,” Jones said.

At 178 years old, Christ Church is the last historic church of its kind — the only wood block church from the Georgian era still standing in all of Canada. In what can be described as an architectural optical illusion, the building is made of wood but looks from a distance to be made of stone.

As its congregation dwindled, the Anglican church closed in 1976. These days Christ Church hosts two annual services organized by a small group of volunteer trustees.

Those trustees are in the midst of planning a significant fundraising campaign to save the unique building. The bill to repair the church’s crumbling foundation and secure the venerable structure against the elements — along with accessibility improvements and a new paint job — is expected to exceed $100,000.

“We’re hoping this event brings much a greater awareness of the church itself and its importance not only to Norfolk County’s built heritage, but the country’s,” Christison said of the Vimy Oak dedication.

Failure to raise the needed funds could spell last rites for Christ Church.

“This will be an all-or-nothing endeavour to save the church,” Christison said.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator