History At St John’s

Learn more about the history of the parish

Anglican Worship In Tillsonburg

a brief introduction
St. John’s, Tillsonburg is located in the southern portion of Oxford County and is part of the Deanery of Oxford in the Diocese of Huron. Together with St. Charles’, Dereham, it makes up the Anglican Church family in the Parish of Tillsonburg.

St. Charles’, Dereham, now a Chapel of Ease, began as the mother church in this region. Built in 1844, it was consecrated in 1845 by Bishop John Strachan of Toronto.

st John’s
St Charles
Tillsonburg Anglicans have worshiped in their own church since 1868. The first St. John’s (located on Harvey Street) was destroyed by fire in 1870, and a new church (located on Rolph Street) was consecrated in 1873, where it served for 27 years. It was replaced by our current church at the corner of Bidwell and Ridout Streets, the cornerstone of which was laid on August 18, 1899, and the building completed in 1900. The parish hall, a separate structure, was opened shortly afterwards, and in 1945 a third building was added, uniting the two.

The Parish up until 2011 also included St. Stephen’s, Culloden (originally named St. Alban’s), which was deconsecrated on August 14, 2011, with the property being sold by the Diocese the next spring. The members of this congregation were warmly welcomed by our St. John’s family and have added significantly to the life of our congregation. In commemoration of this change, our Lady Chapel (formerly “All Souls”) was renamed “St. Stephen’s Chapel.” The altar, altar rail, credence table, and stained glass window from the former St. Stephen’s, Culloden are featured in this newly named chapel.

The 100th anniversary of the current church building was celebrated in 1999. To commemorate this occasion, a history book was compiled entitled “The First Century: 1899 – 1999” detailing the rich history of Anglican worship in Tillsonburg. Please explore below excerpts from this fascinating publication and if you are interested in more, the book can be borrowed from the church office.

Excerpts From “The First Century”

Sunday May 16th, 2021
Almighty God, watchful and caring, our source and our end, all that we are and all that we have are yours. Bless us as we give thanks to you for 100 years of ministry at St. John’s. This is a place where generations have come to praise your name, to ask forgiveness, to know your healing power, to hear your word, and to be nourished by the body and blood of your son. Be present always to guide and judge, to illuminate, inspire and bless us through the years to come. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

B.A.S. page 668 (rewritten)

The main Parish Hall, “a building for Sunday School and lecture room” was built approximately the same time as the Church. The newspaper account of the opening of the new Church commented: “this building is rapidly nearing completion.” It was described as veneered with red brick on a stone foundation standing west of the Church. A detached Parish Hall was not uncommon for this period. The dimensions were 25 X 50 feet and the cost was less than $1,000.

Originally, the kitchen was in the basement of the Parish Hall, but in 1941, a kitchen was added to the back of the original building.

Early in 1944, it was felt that a fitting memorial to those who served in the Second World War would be the erection of a Memorial Parish Hall, joining the old Hall with the Church.

On March 23, 1944, the Rosanna Baptist Church was purchased at a cost of $400 to be used as a connecting building. Walter Shaver, People’s Warden and Larry Millman, Lay Delegate, presented the Church with this building. The exterior was faced with red brick to match the Church and old Hall. In 1947, a committee would be appointed, with Geo. Hollier as chairman to build a new entrance to the church of brick and field stone at a cost not to exceed $1,200, thus completing a face lift to the exterior. The interior of the new Hall was partitioned into the Guild Room, two Choir vestries, each with a washroom, and the Rector’s vestry.

The Church and Parish Hall were redecorated at this time at a cost of $200 for the interior, $450 for the exterior and $150 for new eavestroughing on all structures. The building was opened in October, 1944.

The Ladies’ Guild undertook the furnishing of their room in June, 1945. They purchased drapes, two chesterfield suites and refectory table with five matching chairs.

On Thursday June 28, 1945, at 8pm, the New Memorial Hall was dedicated by Archbishop Charles Seager. Rectors were present from Ingersoll, Woodstock, Princeton and Huron College. The Rev. C. Queen was incumbent at this time.

On March 12, 1947, floor lamps were purchased for the Memorial Hall and a fireplace was installed by the Guild. In October of this same year, the Harvest collection of some $800 was set apart to form the nucleus of a heating fund to be used for the installation of a hot water heating system for the Church and the Parish Hall. In September of 1948, a contract was given to Ostrander Plumbing Co., Tillsonburg, for the installation of a Low Pressure Steam Heating plant for the Church and Parish Hall. By Harvest Thanksgiving, October 10, 1948, $2,739.05 had been raised by canvass, including $500 from the Ladies Guild and a $500 Kellet bequest. The new heating system was put into operation in January 1949. In July of 1948, the roof of the old Parish Hall was insulated.

On December 19, 1948, work began on built-in cupboards and a serving table in the kitchen, as well as the installation of a hot water tank. These projects too were funded by the Ladies’ Guild. A butcher’s block table replaced the serving table in February of 1990, adding a considerable amount of working area.

On March 14, 1949, the Parish Hall was redecorated by the Board of Management, at which time the walls were lined with 3-ply wood. Also at this time, a new stove was purchased for the kitchen by the Ladies’ Guild.

In January 1956, at the annual Vestry Meeting, approval was given for the addition of three rooms to be built on to the north side of the Memorial Hall. These were to be additional Sunday School rooms.
In September of 1973 a new roof was put on the Parish Hall.

In 1974, under the direction of The Rev. Hockin and the Board of Management, the east side of the Memorial Hall was redesigned to feature a more private Rector’s study, resulting in the layout we know today.

In October 1990, new concrete steps were installed at the Sunday School and middle entrances of the Parish Hall.

For more than thirty years itinerant missionaries, “the saddle bag priests” of the Bishop Stewart Mission, had worked in Dereham township. Stewart’s immense diocese of Quebec at that time included South Western Ontario. In 1839, this region became part of the diocese of Toronto, and in 1857, of Huron. St. Charles church on VIII concession was the first permanent station in the township to be occupied, 1844. The second station was opened 24 years later, in the thriving village of Tillsonburg.

On Sunday June7, 1868, Tillsonburg Anglicans worshipped in their own church for the first time. It stood at the south-west corner of Harvey and Ridout Streets, diagonally across from Avondale Church. For some years, they had used temporary, probably rented quarters. This site was the gift of E.D. Tilson, himself not an Anglican. Another gift received was a grant of 4 acres of land from Matthew Burn “for a parsonage”. This “glebe” land was just west of Rolph Street and north of the present Hospital. This land was disposed of several years later, after the building of the present church and a rectory on the adjacent lot, having never been utilized. Three services held that day were conducted by the incumbent, The Reverend W.H. Jones, MA. On each occasion the building was crowded and many who where unable to procure seats had to leave. According to the newspaper at the time, the Tillsonburg Observer, the church was a tasteful erection in the gothic style. The article also made note of the valuable qualities of the new church in respect to sound, which gave the choir a fine opportunity of using their talents. This church was placed under the protection of St. John the Evangelist. On Sunday July 12, 1868, Bishop Benjamin Cronyn of Huron administered the sacrament of Confirmation to 19 persons. Later that year, the minister and a lay delegate, Mr. Joseph Luke, attended the annual Synod, thus bringing St. John’s church into the wider life of the Diocese.

Less than two years later, July 4, 1870, the Harvey Street church was destroyed by fire. Even before the disaster, difficulties had begun to accumulate. The title of the land “for the parsonage” was not clear and The Rev. Mr. Jones had left for the Diocese of Toronto. For a year and more the congregation, under the direction of The Rev. T.E. Saunders met in the Sons of Temperance Hall (Bidwell and Baldwin Streets). The choir of St. John’s Church, Tillsonburg, gave a concert in the Sons’ Hall February 28, 1871 to enable them to replace the music and instruments burned in the fire. The concert was a success. The choir was assisted by the “Tillsonburg Brass Band” one of the best village bands in Ontario.

The Harvey Street site was sold and the money used to buy a new site on Rolph Street, south of the Public School. The insurance on the first church, supplemented by vigorous collecting drives, wiped out the old indebtedness and made possible a new “mission chapel”. On November 12, 1873, this modest structure (already in use for a year) was consecrated by Bishop Isaac Helmulth as St. John’s Church, the name still used.

For 27 years, the Rolph Street church served the Tillsonburg Anglicans. They were a representative group, including farmers from the surrounding countryside as well as town business and professional men. Among the prominent parishioners were names including Burn, Luke, Smith, Thompson, Waller, A.E. Raynes (the town clerk) and J.H. Wilson (the public school principal). A benefactor of the first church, active worker in the second and contributor to the third was Dr. Sylvanus Joy, the New York trained physician. In 1897, encouraged by Bishop Maurice Baldwin’s suggestion that it would form a “fitting memorial to our national jubilee” ie.: the 30th of Confederation and the 60th of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, a new church was resolved upon–and on new ground.

Since 1888, the Vestry had held an option on a fine site at Bidwell and Ridout Streets. Eleven years later, Friday August 18, 1899, the cornerstone of the third, or present, St. John’s Church was laid. The service was held at 2pm, preceded by a procession formed by the Masons, which started at the Opera House in the Town Hall and passed down Broadway, across Ridout Street to the lot where the church was in the process of construction. Copies of the service or office for the laying of a cornerstone were printed and distributed before the service. Music for the service was provided by I.O.O.F Band. The cornerstone was laid by E.T. Malone, Grand Master of A.F. & A.M. of Canada. A scroll, copies of that week’s issue of the Observer and Liberal, other papers and coins of the latest issue of the Mint were placed in the stone. The engraved silver trowel used at the cornerstone laying was presented as a gift to Mr. Malone following the service. Shortly after 5pm, the ladies of the church served tea in the Public School grounds and later in the evening there was a garden party held in the same grounds.

The new St. John’s was in every sense a peoples’ church. The cost, apart from the sale of the Rolph Street property, came out of Tillsonburg pockets. The ladies of the church paid $1,500 for the lot. Mr. John Smith superintended the building, giving his time and experience, effecting a large savings in the outlay. The parishioners carefully watched over the construction with the consequence that the building of the church cost only $6,280. Shortly after the opening of the church the parish hall was completed at a cost of $1,000.

On Sunday September 23, 1900 the first service was held in the present building. The Right Rev. M.S. Baldwin, third Bishop of Huron, dedicated the new church at the 11am service. There were four services held that day, 8am Holy Communion, 11am Dedication and Holy Communion, 3pm Children’s Service and 7pm Evensong. The Bishop preached at all services. The attendance for the day was 1,186, the largest congregation being at Evensong, when there were 500 in the church. Weeknight services in connection with the opening were held the following Monday through Thursday.

The church became debt free in 1910 and was consecrated on May 1st of that year by The Right Rev. David Williams, fourth Bishop of Huron. Following are excerpts of the newspaper accounts of this event:
“May 1, 1910 – Consecration of St. John’s Church. Long to be remembered in the annals of St.John’s Church. Ten years ago the church was opened for the use of the congregation of the Church of England, but because it was necessary to place upon it a mortgage for a considerable amount, the church could not be consecrated. Over the past nine years the work has been supported by the faithful ladies resulting in the reduction of debt. By June, 1909 the debt was $1,700. It was decided to make a supreme effort to pay off the debt entirely and at the end of a ten month campaign, success has attended the labours of the rector and the congregation. The debt has been discharged and the church consecrated according to the rites of the Church of England by the name of St. John’s Church.”

Also “Conducted by Rev. David Williams MA,DD, Lord Bishop of Huron, who was met at the main door by the rector, wardens and choir. He was presented with the Petition of Consecration from the Corporation and congregation. After acceptance, all proceeded to the Chancel singing the 24th Psalm. The Bishop read beautiful prayers and at his command the instrument of Consecration was read by The Rev. Horace Snell, rector of Thorndale. There ended the Consecration and Morning Prayer proceeded. The Bishop preached about the moral life of the nation depending on the existence of the Christian Church. It is not the duty of the state to teach religion in public schools. The teaching and fostering of religion is the business of the Church of Christ. The Bishop closed by extending congratulations to the rector and congregation upon the success of their labours.

“The church was beautifully decorated with plants and flowers. There was a large congregation present. The Bishop also preached at the evening service that day.”

When Glad Millman came to Tillsonburg with her husband, Lawrence, in 1935, there were twenty-seven people in the congregation.

The church was deeply in debt, the clergyman was very elderly and his voice was very weak. His wife was an invalid and was unable to assist him. Lawrie and Walter Shaver were business partners. They worked hard at church also and eventually were able to pay off the debt.

The Church kitchen was in the basement under the hall, however, many suppers were prepared on an old gas stove down there. The Parish Hall was a separate building from the church at this time.

A drive was made to get new members. The congregation were asked to bring in new people. A young minister came along who appealed to the junior members. His name was Rev. Maurice Farr.

The church gradually began to build in all ways. Lawrie heard about a school-house being for sale. It was red brick, very cheap and fitted well between the Church and the hall. The congregation worked hard providing free labour to install what now is the Friendship Room.

One winter, when visiting in Main, Lawrie noticed the church pathway was heated electrically when it was iced over. Lawrie thought this would be a good thing for St. John’s, and heating was built into the church steps.

The rectory was in a bad state of repair, but it was fixed up before World War II.

The new kitchen came into being in the 1940’s. In those days the congregation of St. Stephen’s, Culloden, was greater than that of St. John’s. Stained glass windows began to replace the plain glass ones in the church. The Rokebys, Sergeants and Burns families were among the dedicated workers in the parish. Miss Gladys Luke was the organist and worked for very little pay. There were three choristers. Rev. Charles James and his wife organized the Chancel Guild during to late forties and early fifties.

Charlie Hill was the Verger – he also worked for next to nothing.

Bazaars were held very similar to those of these days. Glad liked to make cinnamon apples with apples supplied by Rokeby Orchards. The Rokeby family still provide us with apples today from which we make mince-meat and apple pies. Marion Waller made aprons and did lots of knitting. Canned fruit, jams, pickles and beet horse-radish sold well.

Bales were sent to missions in the north.

The ladies entertained with plays. Marion Waller made many of the costumes. The plays always had a moral message.

Now Gladys knows we have a wonderful church containing all our physical needs and providing
great leadership for us spiritually as well.

Gladys Millman – interviewed by Phyllis (Honsberger) Barwell

Margaret Van Loon was born in Tillsonburg. She lived with her parents in the house beside the
rectory on Bidwell St. Her father owned and operated a drug store on Broadway St. (Thompson’s Drug Store.) The family were members of the Presbyterian Church.

As a child, Marg and her friends played baseball, etc. on the vacant area between St. John’s Church and the Parish Hall, where the Fellowship Room now stands. She was a Girl Guide at St. John’s. She well remembers the flag that still hangs in the church. She learned how to darn the heel of a sock as a Girl Guide and still could perform this procedure if necessary today.

After the war in 1945, Ralph, Marg’s first husband returned from the war. He had been seriously injured in Holland, resulting in the loss of a limb. Rev. Carmen Queen was a great help to the Thompsons at this time. Ralph and Marg became members of St. John’s Church.

In 1946, Marg joined the ladies Guild. The meetings were conducted in a similar way to the present day meetings. They too held an annual bazaar and tea. One year, the ladies who had served tea at the bazaar, decided to make for their supper some creamed chicken patties. I don’t think the idea was too successful as they never repeated the “treat” again.

Marg and Ralph both joined the St. John’s Church choir. Fletcher Bradburn was the organist at the time. Marg became a Brownie leader, but soon both the Brownies and Guides were discontinued, due to lack of leadership.

Peter Hillborg, son of Marg and Ralph, was Christened by Rev. John Doidge. The font was at the back cross aisle at that time.

Margaret Van Loon – interviewed by Phyllis (Honsberger) Barwell

Kathleen came to St. John’s Church when she married Bill in 1930.

She became active in leadership of the Girl Guides, Brownies and the Junior Auxillary. She was a member of the Women’s Auxillary which became known later as the Ladies Guild.

The Girl Guides of St. John’s were very proud of their flag which still hangs proudly in the church. They were very active with all the usual activities of Guiding. One time she took part in an Operetta of well known songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s works.

Mrs. James, wife of Rev. Charles James, asked Kathleen if she would lead a group of Junior Auxiliary girls. She willingly agreed to do so. This group of girls aged about seven to eleven years, were a junior part of the Anglican Church Women. They sent $20.00 annually to the Diocese of Huron. They wore white cotton blouses, green skirts, green felt ties and green beanies. They held bazaars and “Flower Teas”, selling their crafts, etc. and maybe incorporating a “Fish Pond”, where you may have been able to catch a good prize. This group gave the Cancel Guild $25.00 toward the church hangings.

The Processional Cross was dedicated in 1959, in memory of Kathleen and Bill’s first daughter, Ruth Grace Hawkins.

The Pascal Candle and stand were given by Kathleen and her daughter, Shirley, in memory of William Hawkins. It was dedicated in 1976.

Kathleen Hawkins – interviewed by Phyllis (Honsberger) Barwell

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:8 (NRSV)