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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Four new churches dedicated in county in early 1864

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


The period from roughly 1860 to 1875 marked a flurry of church construction in Wellington, from one end of the county to the other.

All those new houses of worship indicated that the various communities had achieved stable and generally prosperous population.

Following the volatile years of the 1850s, farmers enjoyed solid prices for agricultural commodities, and stores, mills and factories provided relatively stable economies in the towns and villages.

The era of church building ended in the mid-1870s, when the economy took a significant downturn. Some of the churches built in the 1860s and 1870s are still in service, updated to modern standards.

Others have been converted to new uses, and quite a few have long vanished from the landscape.

A peak for new church openings occurred in February 1864, when new edifices were dedicated at the rate of one per week.

First of the dedications was the Wesleyan Methodist Church at Parker (on Wellington Road 7 southwest of Arthur, in Mapleton Township). The initial services were on Sunday, Jan. 31 of 1864, with three ministers present, and a crowd so large that a supplementary service was quickly organized in the adjoining school house.

The following day, Feb. 1, a special tea meeting continued the dedication rituals. It was a miserable day, with driving rain in the morning that turned to ice pellets and freezing rain in the afternoon. Nevertheless, more than 250 people came out for a noon meal served in the school house, prepared by the women of the congregation.

Their appetites sated, the crowd adjourned to the church next door for the ceremonies. John Grose acted as chairman for the afternoon. He introduced the various speakers, who spoke and preached for almost three hours. Between the prayers and speeches, Prof. Stafford of Elora’s Methodist church and a hand-picked choir of singers from Elora offered hymns and religious songs.

At about 5pm the crowd rose and returned to the school for a second lunch. When all the stomachs were filled to the brim there was still food left over. The elders auctioned the items off, with proceeds to the building fund.

Including collections and donations, the church raised $120 that day, a good portion of the $1,600 that the new church cost to build. At the end of the day the church’s debt had shrunk to $150.

A week later, on Feb. 7, the original St. James Church in Rothsay opened its doors for worship, with services at 11am and 3pm (Rothsay is two concessions northwest of Parker on Wellington Road 7). For the morning service, Archdeacon Palmer of St. George’s Anglican Church in Guelph officiated. In the afternoon, Rev. C.E. Thompson of St. John’s Church in Elora took charge of the services. The collections at both services went toward paying the deficiency in the building fund.

It appears that there was no special tea service or banquet to mark the occasion, but Holy Trinity Church in Alma cancelled services that Sunday so its members might take in the Rothsay ceremonies.

This first St. James in Rothsay was at the north end of the hamlet, along with the Anglican cemetery. The building was a modest frame one, and remained in service only 21 years. The replacement, made of local white brick, opened in 1885. It closed as an Anglican Church in 1950 when the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing.

Two years later, Rothsay United moved in and abandoned their original building. The Anglican denomination was always a minority one in Wellington, and over the years the proportion of Anglicans in the population dwindled.

A week later the excitement moved to Elora, for the dedication of the new Baptist Church. Elora’s Baptists had organized in 1853, but they were not numerous, and all were of modest means. For a decade they held their services in borrowed quarters, led by lay members of the congregation.

In 1863 congregation members felt sufficiently established to construct their own church. They secured a lot on Henderson Street, which was then on the northern fringe of the built-up area of the village.

The Baptists constructed a small building, 30 by 36 feet, with walls 14 feet high. It was built of locally-made red brick, with detailing at the corners and windows in white brick, brought in from Peel Township.

The cost of the building was only $700, about the same as the cost of a modest house at that time. The building was worth much more because the bulk of the labour was donated by members of the congregation working in the building trades. For several months the women of the church ran a bazaar in an empty Mill Street store, selling homemade and second-hand items in aid of the building fund.

Elora’s Baptists planned to be in their new quarters in time for the 1863 Christmas services, but construction fell several weeks behind schedule. The opening services were held on Feb. 14, 1864. By modern standards that dedication service was an ordeal, with lengthy sermons by each of three visiting ministers stretching the event to more than three hours.

After the service, the congregation and their guests adjourned to the basement of the much larger Methodist Church for a tea meeting. Well-wishers from other denominations outnumbered the Baptists that day, and the other Elora ministers rose with messages of congratulations and goodwill during the tea meeting.

Elora’s Baptists gained new members for a decade, but in 1875 a rift split the congregation, and it never recovered. Some of the members attempted unsuccessfully to form a Christian Brethren church, and others drifted to other denominations. Only five Baptist families are listed in the 1881 census, with another handful in the adjoining townships.

The church eventually closed. In 1909, St. John’s bought the building for use as a community hall. Extended by frame additions and portable school buildings, it was the office of the Elora Festival for a time. It is now in private hands. The attractive brick work can still be admired on the sides of the complex.

The following Sunday, Feb. 21, a new Primitive Methodist Church opened on the 8th Line of Peel, at what was then known as Thackeray’s Settlement. There were several branches of Methodism active in Ontario in the mid 19th century. The Wesleyans were the most common. Primitive Methodism was a fringe group, dating to 1810 in England.

Its adherents had a revivalist approach to religion, and favoured camp meetings to build enthusiasm. They preferred plain speaking and dark, dull clothing. Most were poor, either small-scale farmers or unskilled labourers.

It seems that no details of that first service have survived, but the following day, on Feb. 22, there was a well-attended tea meeting in aid of the building fund. It drew many people from other denominations.

There are some common threads to these four church openings, and they apply to other churches built in the 1860s.

The congregations had a major portion of the funding in place before they started construction. The opening services were set up as major fundraising occasions.

And in all cases there was an ecumenical spirit in evidence: though there were no doubt exceptions, most church-going people welcomed the new church buildings put up by other denominations as a sign of the progress of Christianity and civilization generally, and as a sign that diverse religious opinions could co-exist amicably in the community.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 7, 2008.


Vol 51 Issue 48


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