The church of St. George’s, Middlesex Centre stands all alone in the countryside, adjacent to a natural spring, surrounded entirely by fields, guarding a peaceful cemetery, a mere fifteen minutes away from the city of London. On Sunday morning it resonates with the voices of worshipers, and continues its legacy of outstanding music, as the descendants of its founders worship alongside the relative newcomers who live on the farms and in the dormitory communities to the northwest of the city.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a group of South Western Ontario settlers held their first service together as the Anglican Parish of St. George, in what was then London Township, on this very same site. Most of these settlers had come from Cumberland and Northumberland; they were committed Tories and members of the Church of England in their old land, and they maintained their loyalty to these traditions in their new land. When they arrived, their new home was nothing but bush, charted only with blazed concession lines, and carving farms out of this landscape would take years of hard work. London itself was only a small village at the forks of two rivers, a considerable distance away by cart or on foot.
The Shipley and Robson families were the first settlers, arriving in the 1820's after a long journey by ox-cart from their landing place in York. The Robson family brought seven children, of whom only the youngest was too young to obtain his own grant of land. It was later this youngest son who did most of the work in building the first St. George’s church.
According to historical record, the settlers would periodically make the 16 mile journey into London to attend worship – a very difficult and hazardous journey which under certain conditions might take days. London was still largely unorganized at the time, and services were provided only occasionally by missionaries who were passing through. How the settlers on the distant farms found out about these services in time to make the journey is a mystery!
Most of the settlers had been farmers and stockmen in England, but their family farms held little promise for the future of their children, while Canada offered much better prospects. There is no official record of what they brought with them, but there are legends of a huge, antique New Testament, with commentary, which was much cherished. And they definitely brought books and musical instruments. They were well-educated people, and they valued their literary and musical culture as much as their skills with animals and crops.
They found good soil, tall timber and spring water just a few miles to the northwest of London. There was even a tamarack swamp, giving promise of fine building material, and it was from this swamp, some twenty years after the first settlers arrived, that the rafters for the first church were hewn. The church was built next to the cemetery, which had already been in operation for a few years, on a piece of land donated by one of the Robson farms.
The first record of official worship in the vicinity was in 1822, when a service was led by the Reverend C.J. Stewart, a visiting missionary from the Diocese of Quebec. The Rev. Stewart noted in his diary that the London township area was “less desolate or uninhabited than formerly,” and that the new settlers were building roads, which was a condition of their land grants, thereby opening the region up. He noted that “On Sunday, the 28 of July, I performed Divine Service to a congregation of th nearly 250 persons and baptized three adults and twenty children.” He noted that many of those attending had walked many miles to be there, and he recommended that missionaries should be sent to London township to establish parishes as soon as possible.
It took some time, but gradually mission parishes were established throughout the township. The stipends for the clergy were provided by missionary societies in England, and the congregations themselves provided all other necessities for the operation and care of the church. A young Irishman, the Reverend Edward Sullivan, who was later to become the first Bishop of Algoma, was sent to minister to the group of settlers who lived around the thirteenth concession of London township, and under his care the congregation came to the point of being self-supporting.
The first wooden building, St. George’s of the Springs, opened its doors in 1841, and the preacher for the occasion was Bishop Cronyn. Some years later a parsonage was built next to the church, probably to house a newly-married rector. This parsonage was built on rather gracious lines, with a wide central hall, passing between two bedrooms, and the two large rooms of the main house, down to the log kitchen at the back. The original wooden church building was de-consecrated, removed and put to other uses when the present stately, brick building opened in 1869. At the first service in the new building, in the winter of 1869, Dr. Sullivan, then Bishop of Algoma but a former rector of this parish, returned to preach to his former congregation. Soon afterwards, the Rev. R. Wilson was appointed to the parish and he remained there for thirty-five years, from 1869 to 1904, gaining a reputation for his devotion to the congregation. Since he never married, he declared that he had no need of the parsonage and insisted that the sexton, Mr. Akister, and his wife should live in it. Mr. Akister himself remained in the position of sexton for many decades, caring assiduously for the buildings and grounds. Among other things, Mr. Akister was remembered for his “cordial dislike” for “innovations in the way of decoration with altar crosses or anything that seems to savor of Rome, or of pre-Reformation Anglicanism" (The Evangelical Churchman, date unkown).
In 1895 the interior of the new brick building was extensively renovated, creating a new central aisle, and an extended chancel to accommodate the choir. Old photographs show the rather barren interior of the building as it was originally: the beautiful painting of texts around the chancel arch and altar windows was not yet there; seating consisted of a wide central pew and narrow side aisles; and just below the pulpit was a gated pew for the rector’s family.
The interior of the chancel was renovated again just a few years ago, when the choir pews were re-positioned outside of the chancel arch, to improve audibility and accommodate a larger choir. With the chancel space thus opened up, it was possible to move the altar rail further away from the altar, thereby reducing the bottleneck and congestion at communion and improving accessibility.
The first addition to the church building was the Parish Hall, for which the first sod was ceremonially dug out on October 8, 1960, by Miss Ethel Robson. This was, however, a purely ceremonial event, th as the foundation trenches were already dug and the forms in place. The hall building, which was to house a growing Sunday School and parish functions, was 24 by 48 feet, and was built for a total cost of about $3, 000, mostly by teams of volunteers.
Some of the very same volunteers helped with building the replacement hall some thirty years later. The Sunday School had outgrown the space, the kitchen was in need of renovation, and the hall was not big enough to accommodate the whole congregation. The new hall provided a nursery, three classrooms, an extended kitchen, an accessible washroom, and a large, bright, high-ceilinged space big enough to comfortably hold the entire congregation for lunch or a social event.
Music has always been, and continues to be, a prominent feature of worship at St. George’s. The Robsons, Shipleys, Waughs, and later the Charltons, Thirlwalls, and Calverts, all of whom were inter-married and inter-related, produced generation after generation offine musicians. It was Robert Robson who, as organist and choir master in the early years, secured a fine organ for the church by entering the St. George’s church choir into a competition, in which the organ itself was the first prize. Prior to winning that organ, the choir had worked with only a tuning fork, but they were well known in the area for the quality of their music. This legacy of music continued through succeeding generations, with gifted Robsons, Charltons, and Thirlwalls, as well as newcomers, lending their talents to support worship. For many, many years, Sunday morning worship was accompanied by a small orchestra as well as the organ and choir. The twenty-first century has seen further musical development, with some remarkable contributions from MusicDirectors, including such noteworthy talents as Angus Sinclair, Alexander Cann and Carol McFadden. The choir is now augmented by choral scholars from the vocal program at Western University, who are valued members of the congregation.
Throughout all of its history, St. George’s has been active in outreach ministries, giving time, money and gifts to support charitable groups in the immediate community, the wider community and the world. Many acts of charity are local and discrete, quietly carried out without publicity, supporting both local charitable groups, such as the VON and the Food Bank, and individuals in need. Through associations with other Anglican churches in the Deanery, St. George’s helps with street ministry in the city, sponsoring refugees, and a host of other projects.
Like most other churches, St. George’s has experienced a steady decline in numbers in the past two decades, and the average age of regular worshipers is quite high. The Sunday School no longer operates, as families seem to have so many competing demands on their Sunday mornings that more often than not there are no children in church. The Sunday School rooms in the hall have all been re-purposed, and there are now special facilities inside the church to welcome children during the services.
The year 2016 is the 175 anniversary of the founding of the parish of St. George’s, and anniversary th celebrations began with a special service on the first Sunday in January. In February the choir joined with the neighbouring United Church choir to perform a concert of Sunday anthems, honouring the musical legacy of St. George’s. In May, the lost tradition of a Blossom Tea for ladies was revived, with flowers, dainty treats, music and lots of elaborate hats. Still to come are special events in September, October and November, and the final, culminating event on December 29th commemorating the actual date on which the very first St. George’s service was held.
St. George’s is in some ways typical and in some ways unique. It is a perfectly ordinary Anglican church, housed in a traditional and much cherished building, which pre-dates Confederation and bears witness to the cultural traditions of its founders. Its congregation continues to include some of the descendants of the original settlers, alongside newcomers and urban commuters, who have found a community of faith here. The sparse settlement that briefly existed close by is gone, and the church remains, standing alone by the cemetery, but it is this very solitude, this air of peaceful reassurance and stability that holds this old church so close to the hearts of so many, and draws them to express and nurture their faith within its walls.
“No church in the Diocese is more beautifully located or pleasantly surrounded, and all who visit here are impressed with the air of peace which not only characterizes the life and work of the parish but also spreads itself over the whole surroundings of this pretty church, nestled in the side of its quiet country churchyard, with a dark and solemn cedar wood as its background.” (The Evangelical Churchman, date unkown)
Much of this text is adapted from essays written in the 1950's by Ethel Robson, a descendant of one of the founding families, and a woman of remarkable accomplishment.