In April 2014 Corey Keeble, Curator Emeritus of the ROM, William Maddox and I led a two day pilgrimage of sacred spaces along both sides of the Niagara River. I am posting commentary and photos from the pilgrimage in anticipation of our upcoming pilgrimage on Friday, November 20.
St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Niagara on-the-Lake
St Andrew's Church was established in Niagara on-the-Lake in 1794 in what was then called Newark. It wasn't the charming festival town we think of today, but it was the capital of Upper Canada and as such it was far more significant than Fort York, (Toronto), directly across Lake Ontario.
During the War of 1812 St. Andrew's Church was used by the British troops as an infirmary and the tower as a watchtower against attacks from the Americans, although, its distance from the border makes one wonder to what effect. After all the fort had a much closer vantage point. Nonetheless the use of the church for military reasons was costly. In 1813 invading American troops burned it to the ground.
Architect James Cooper was engaged and the congregation rebuilt a classical Greek masterpiece worthy of any capital in the new world and reminiscent of many New England churches of the same era. With her stately tower and six doric columns it was as if the zenith had risen from the ashes to proclaim victory in the war to a height visible well beyond the border.
However the victory at home took longer to achieve. It was several years before the legislature agreed to compensate the church for damages suffered in service of the homeland. One can almost imagine the Scots in the church haggling with those in the legislature across town over the four hundred pounds stirling which was finally granted.
As if being burned to the ground during a war wasn't enough for one church to suffer in a lifetime, in 1854 a mighty wind passed through town and it wasn't Pentecost Sunday nor the gift of the Holy Spirit. A tornado damaged the church's spire, roof and rear gable wall. Another architect was brought in and the roof lines were altered raising the ceiling and adding a taste of Georgian to the Greek edifice.
When a church building is almost two hundred years old there will undoubtedly have been subsequent work. The church was restored in 1937 under the guiding eye of Eric Arthur and again in 1991. However it was the 1937 restoration that caught our eye in the form of the large marble monument marking the dedication and bearing the name of Lieutenant-Governor Albert Matthews who belonged to our church and whose family still bless us with their presence and leadership.
While the Honourable Lieutenant-Governor presided over the dedication, the monument also indicated the source of the funds to restore the church was none other than Mayor Thomas Foster of Toronto whose mausoleum outside of Uxbridge was the final visit on our previous tour of sacred spaces. http://peter.yorkminsterpark.com/2013/12/the-thomas-foster-memorial.php In Uxbridge we had learned of his legacy of real estate development and tree-planting in the city but had no idea of his generous heart towards the church. Foster did a good deed in restoring St. Andrew's not only because of its historical significance, but also because, as Curator Corey Keeble said, "In terms of both architecture and age there is nothing else quite like it in Ontario."
The church's interior is set apart by its boxed pews and double-decker pulpit which would have allowed the preacher to look straight into the eyes of those up in the balcony in the event their faith was not as well grounded as those below. We were told the people of the church are pleased their minister, The Rev. Barb McGale, continues to climb the stairs to offer her sermons from on high. Perhaps it serves to remind the smaller flock of their history and the great cloud of witnesses that surround us when we gather in the name of Christ and seek to offer worship and service faithful to his name.
So much has changed since the days when Niagara-on-the-Lake was the capital of Upper Canada and St. Andrew's must have been the high kirk of the land, but come late June each year the crowds gather from far and wide on the vast church grounds for the annual strawberry festival at which time one can imagine how busy a Sunday must once have been around the old kirk.
Of course when everything seems to change there are some things that one can always count on. As pilgrims we sang 'Shall we gather at the river," beckoning our minds to the end of the street and the river which has been a constant force in the lives of all who have lived in the village and worshipped in the church.
The constancy of the river is a small reminder of the faithfulness of God, whose compassions fail not season by season all the life long. St. Andrew's was a good place to begin our pilgrimage early in the morning on the first day. And with the singing of a hymn we went out.