Monday 29 August 2022

A church off the old block: The origin of Chalmers Church

From the perspective of postcard collecting, the main issue relating to Chalmers Church in Guelph (now the Royal City Mission Church) is the rarity of postcards featuring views of it. The card below is the only one that I have yet come across.
("Chalmers Church, Guelph." Courtesy of the John Keleher collection. Publisher unknown.)

Comparison with a recent Google Streetview image shows that the exterior of the church has not changed a great deal since the postcard picture was taken sometime in the early 20th century.

Stone churches were a highly collectable category of picture postcard back in the day and the Chalmers Church was no slouch in the aesthetics department. Furthermore, the Knox Church just down the block was represented on a number of postcards.
(From "Knox Church fire of 1904.")

Like Knox, Chalmers was also a Presbyterian Church, a mainstream denomination that any city like Guelph would boast of. So, why Knox would be prominently featured while Chalmers was the Royal City's secret remains a head-scratcher.

Interestingly, Chalmers Church owes its existence to Knox Church. The first Knox Church edifice on Yarmouth Street was sold to the Raymond Sewing Machine company when it expanded its shop along that street. The congregation built itself a smart new home around the corner on Quebec Street, where the cornerstone was laid in October, 1868.

(The first Knox Presbyterian church on Yarmouth Street, to the right of the Raymond Sewing Machine factory, ca. 1870. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, Grundy 249.)

By the early months of the following year, a sizeable portion of the congregation was looking to break away! Official histories are somewhat mum on the reason. C.A. Burrows (1877), in his Annals of the Town of Guelph, says only that there was an "unhappy divison" within the congregation, while Smith (1955, p. 96) says that some members were "at variance" with the minister, W.S. Ball.

(Rev. W.S. Ball, ca. 1880. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1997.21.2.)

Perhaps my favourite perspective is that of George B. Anderson, who reminisced about the incident, which occured when he was a boy (Mercury, 20 July 1927):

About the time I came to Guelph to live we all went to Knox Church. Knox Church was a barn-like structure on Yarmouth Street, a diagonal street running from Norfolk Street to Woolwich. There is, or was, a sewing machine factory on the site of the church. But two factions sprung up, over some question I could never quite understand what it was all about. However, the Chalmers Church faction broke away and worshipped in the Court House for some time, until the present church was built.
Luckily, issues of the Evening Mercury from 1868 survive and provide some details. As noted by Smith, the matter turned on some acrimony regarding Rev. Ball, to whom some parishoners took great exception (17 April):
Knox’s church, Guelph.—The Presbyterial investigation of charges preferred against the Rev. W.S. Ball by members of his congregation, which began on Tuesday evening, closed on Thursday afternoon. The decision of the Presbytery will be read to the congregation on Sunday first by the Rev. Mr. Smellie, of Fergus, who has been appointed to preach on that day.
The resolution adopted by the Presbytery as a result of their investigation was printed subsequently (Mercury, 20 April). To make a long story short, the resolution focusses on a few specifics. It notes that Rev. Ball continued to enjoy the support of many members of the church. However, some members had impugned his "pulpit abilities" and his spread gossip about his "moral character." Access to Sabbath School and pew rentals also seem to have underwhelmed some congregants. In fairness, the Presbytery found that Rev. Ball had addressed the situation using "imprudent language," thus feeding the fire afflicting the congregation.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of these points. However, the mention of pew rents is interesting. It was a custom brought from the old country that pews were rented to congregants. The best pews were at the very front and were rented to the wealthiest and most prominent families. Rents got cheaper the closer to the back they sat, while some at the very back were freely available to strangers and indigents.

Rents were not very expensive but were an important source of income for churches. Collecting pew rents, which were frequently in arrears, was a regular headache for the pastors of churches where rents were applied.

Of course, since the location of a family's pews was a signficant signal of social status, they could also be a source of social dispute. Since the Knox congregation had recently moved into a new building and thus had to negotiate pew rentals for everyone, it may well be that some members of the congregation took exception to their new arrangement, to which Rev. Ball may have responded with impatience.

Doubtless, the situation was complicated and particular to local circumstances. As Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In any event, attempts at reconciliataion proved fruitless and a segment of the Knox Congregation applied to the Presbytery to form its own group named Chalmers Church, in honour of Thomas Chalmers, a luminary of the Free Church of Scotland. This petition was granted and the group began to hold services in the city Court House while making plans to establish its own place of worship.

(An ad from the Guelph Mercury, 24 July 1868, for the first meeting of the Chalmers church in the Court House.)

The founders' plans went well. In September of 1869, Rev. Thomas Wardrope of Knox Church, Ottawa, agreed to become minister of the new church. The cornerstone of the new building was officially laid by Rev. D.H. MacVicar, Principal of Montreal College, on 22 June 1870, and services began there in December of the following year.

("Laying Cornerstone—Chalmers United Church 1870." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1970.39.17. In the background on St. George's Square, note the original Wellington Hotel on the left, the old Bank of Montreal building in the centre, and the rear of the second St. George's Anglican church on the right.)

Leaders of the new church spared no expense in setting themselves up. They hired Toronto architect Henry Langley, "the undisputed dean of ecclesiastical architecture in Ontario during the last half of the 19th century." The Board of Managers were quite specific that they wanted a church in the latest taste, modeled on the Knox Church of Montreal, though on a smaller scale. Langley certainly delivered! The church cost a total of $25,000, a considerable amount for a new congregation.

(Henry Langley. Courtesty Wikipedia.)

Gilbert Stelter (1989) makes the following point about the relation of Chalmers Church to Knox Church down the block:

The choice of a site for the new church seems almost provocative, for it was almost next door on the same downtown street (Quebec) as Knox Church, from which they had split. And the use of a relatively sophisticated Gothic design must have been calculated to look more impressive than the very simple Gothic of Knox's new building, designed by James Smith of Toronto a year earlier. Knox Church was essentially a rectangular box ornamented only with plain pointed windows. Chalmers, however, was described as "the best constructed and the most elegantly furnished church in town" when it opened for services in 1871.
The building was also distinguished by the fact that it constructed of imported gray limestone rather than the plentiful, warm local material. No doubt, this measure also serveed to distinguish the church from Knox church.
("Knox Presbyterian Church, 1871." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, Grundy 63.)

The congregtation grew during the Victorian era and the church was altered and expanded to meet additional demands for space. A substantial renovation was completed in 1896. Designed by the original architect, Henry Langley, the shingles on the roof were replaced by slate and a series of dormer windows were added as well. Each row on either side of the roof could be opened at once with a hand crank. The ventilation thus achieved served as an early form of air conditioning.

A new gallery was added around the main auditorium, which could seat 320 people, bringing the total capacity to 850 persons. In a pinch, partitions between the vestibule and the auditorium could be lowered mechanically and 200 seats added to the vestibule also, meaning that the church could hold over 1,000 souls.

A point of particular pride was that the lighting of the church was converted to electricity. A review in the Mercury (23 September 1896) speaks most highly of the two main electroliers suspended in the auditorium. (In fact, many of the fixtures were hybrids that combined incandescent lighting with gas, as a precaution in case the power went out, which was not so unusual in that era.)

The total cost of these renovations was $6,050, a considerable outlay.

Perhaps the most interesting alteration in that era was the purchase and installation of a pipe organ in 1890. Today, organ music and singing in church services is de rigeur but it was not so when Chalmers Church was founded. Until 1873, singing in Prebyterian church was "lined", that is, a leader or "precentor" read a line from a Psalm and the congregation sang it back. A tuning fork was sometimes deployed to assist everyone in hitting the appropriate pitch.

In 1867, just before Chalmers Church was founded, Knox Presbyterian Church in Montreal created a brouhaha by including organ music in its services. The issue of whether or not instrumental music was kosher for its churches was referred to the national Synod. This body made no decision, thus effectively leaving the matter to each Presbytery to decide for itself.

An "interesting discussion" was held on the matter in the Guelph Presbytery (Mercury, 15 January 1868), which voted down the idea. Even so, services gradually became more musical. Chalmers' first choir was formed in 1871. Hymn singing was introduced to service a few years following. The organ question was revisited again in 1884 and rejected in a vote of the congregation.

Finally, installation and use of an organ was approved in 1890. It may have helped that Knox Church had approved the use of an organ in 1887. True to form, the new organ was a top-of-the-line instrument featuring 900 pipes in all, powered hydraulically by connection with the city waterworks. Considerable renovations were required to accommodate it (Mercury, 8 September 1890).

("Chalmers Church, ca. 1890." Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, 1975.21.21.)

While Chalmers and Knox churches remained social rivals the actual division between their congregations was neither profound nor long-lasting. At the time Chalmers Church was formed, there were four different Presbyterian groups in Canada. These had been engaged in negotiations for a union for some time, a project that resulted in the amalgamation of all four into the Presbyterian Church in Canada in 1875. Thus, Chalmers and Knox congregations became equal members of a single, national body.

Chalmers Church became Chalmers United Church when the the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925.

In his reminiscences, Geo. B. Anderson notes that many of the great and good of the Royal City were members of Chalmers Church in its early days:

  • Peter Gow, who ran a tannery business where Gow's bridge now lies, was twice Mayor, Guelph's first M.P.P. after confederation, and held the post of Provincial Secretary. He assumed the office of County Sheriff upon his retirement in 1876.
  • David Stirton, who owned a farm in Puslinch near town, was elected as the Member for the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada (1858–1867) and then Member of Parliament (1867–1876), after which point he retired to Guelph and assumed the office of Postmaster.
  • Donald Guthrie, a local lawyer, succeeded Stirton as M.P. for Wellington South (1876–1882), and then served as M.P.P. in the same area (1886–1894).
  • James Innes was for 36 years an editor and publisher of the Guelph Mercury.
  • Hugh Guthrie, son of Donald Guthrie, was also a local lawyer who had a long and eminent career as M.P. for Wellington South (1900–1935) during which time he held many high offices.
So, whatever it lacked in postcard representations, Chalmers Church was an eniment fixture in the culture and landscape of Victorian Guelph and, happily, continues to adorn Quebec street to this day.
Works consulted include:

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Video talk: The origin of the Blacksmith Fountain, Guelph

My talk for the Guelph Historical Society on the Origin of the Blacksmith Fountain, once in the centre of St. George's Square, is now available on YouTube. Enjoy!
(St. George's Square, ca. 1880; Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1975.21.94.)