CHRIST CHURCH ANGLICAN
Churches have always played a significant role in the ongoing life of communities in rural Ontario and throughout Canada. Not only do the people who comprise the congregations provide stories and insights, but the buildings they use for worship say much about the architectural roots and heritage of the village.
Christ Church, the Anglican Church in Vittoria, along with the adjacent Baptist Church and Town Hall and the nearby United Church, provide a rare and valuable legacy of the earlier architectural styles that have survived to this day. In her authoritative book on church architecture of Upper Canada, "Hallowed Walls", the respected historian Marion MacRae has this to say about our Anglican church: "Of the timber churches which were designed in the continuing Georgian tradition, one of the handsomest yet standing is Christ Church, Vittoria."
As is generally known, Christ Church stands on the site of the original Court House of the London District, for which Vittoria attained particular fame between 1815 and 1825 when the courts were held there. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the church that we know today was in fact built upon remnants of the very foundation of the courthouse building, which was partially destroyed by fire on the night of St. John's Day, 1825.
From the very early years of the 19th century, ongoing attempts had been made to establish a permanent clergy presence and house of worship for the Anglican congregation in the Vittoria area, to meet the spiritual needs of Norfolk County. The village came close to realizing this goal in the second decade of the 19th century, when it was decided to build a church edifice on a rise of ground south of the village, on the side road running through the property of Joseph McCall. The timbers were cut and delivered to the site, but owing to changes in the condition of settlement and other factors, the building was never erected. Though churches were going up in a few scattered communities of the Long Point Settlement (as the area was then known), it wasn't until 1844 that Vittoria Anglicans would build a church of their own.
Up until that time, other ways were devised to nurture the religious well-being of the community. Before the fire in 1825, the courthouse was used occasionally for services by the Episcopalians and the Methodists (the Baptists already having a meeting-house of their own in the village). The Gospel would be administered by clergymen from other congregations within traveling distance, or by individuals under license to the bishop. Around 1820, the Reverend Eli Chadwick regularly held services under such a license in the neighbourhood of Vittoria, about whom there is a particular story. Apparently, Reverend Chadwick would have been ordained as a full-fledged Anglican clergyman had it not been for the episode of wearing his Sunday best while feeding a calf. As he was giving it some fresh milk, the calf made the fatal mistake of butting the container and spilling the milk all over the Reverend. This so angered him that he lost his temper, went into a rage and beat the calf to death with the wooden bucket, effectively ending any hopes of an ordination.
Alternatively, there were other neighbouring congregations, such as St. John's Anglican Church near Simcoe, which many would visit for Sunday worship. In those days, it was not unusual for one to travel many miles to attend a church of one's own denomination. A case in point is Joseph Tisdale, who lived near Normandale until moving his family to Vittoria in 1830. Until Christ Church was erected, he regularly drove a lumber wagon with as many as ten members of his family on board to St. John's. Every Saturday at noon, he would turn a team of horses to pasture in order to rest them for the drive on Sunday. It is no surprise, then, that Joseph Tisdale, being a loyal and respected member of the community and a practicing Anglican, would be instrumental in making a church building in Vittoria a reality in later years.
The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1844. An article describing the ceremony appeared in "The Church" on August 2nd of that year: ... The cornerstone of a Church was laid, with Masonic Honours, at Vittoria, in the Township of Charlotteville, on Monday the 17th of June. It was an occasion of unalloyed satisfaction and enjoyment to the numerous and respectable congregation assembled. Divine service was performed at the schoolhouse at 11 o'clock. The Rev. George Salmon officiated at the desk, and an appropriate sermon was preached by the Rev. J. C. Usher, Rector of Brantford, who, at very short notice, responded with his accustomed zeal and kindness to the invitation of his brother of Woodhouse. Some appropriate psalms and hymns were sung with good effect by the congregation. After the service, a procession was formed by the Masons, the Clergy, the Building Committee, the young of the flock, and elder portion of the congregation, headed by an amateur band from Simcoe, who kindly gave their assistance on the occasion. In this order they proceeded to the site of the Church, which was that formerly occupied by the Court House. The cornerstone was laid in due form by Col. A. A. Rapelje The prayer for the Church Militant was offered up by the Rev. F. Evans, Rector of Woodhouse, who briefly addressed the assembly; another appropriate hymn was then sung. The procession then returned to the hotel, and after three cheers had been given to her Majesty the Queen, they dispersed ..."
The church building was constructed of native Norfolk County pine from property owned by Joseph Tisdale in what is now known as Spooky Hollow, near Normandale. He and his four sons provided much of the labour in erecting the church as well. With the population of the town growing steadily, it seemed that it could now support an Anglican congregation of its own, underscored in no small way by the fact that all money for the erection of the church was raised locally, with the exception of 10 pounds, which was donated by Lord Metcalfe.
The church was consecrated for service on a reportedly lovely Indian Summer day on Sunday November 16, 1844. Though designed to hold 200 people, it is reported that there were some 300 to 400 people in attendance on that November day, filling the church to capacity and overflowing into the churchyard. Families traveled by wagon for the occasion, from congregations in Simcoe, Port Dover and elsewhere in the Talbot District, together with many belonging to other denominations. Following the morning service, a grand picnic, with games and much socializing, was enjoyed by those in attendance throughout the afternoon, the festivities drawing to a close with a second service later in the day.
Vittoria at this time was a thriving community with a growing population, necessitating a seating capacity such as that just described. With the rapid economic growth of the 1850's, when wheat exports rose to meet the needs of the Crimean War, Vittoria's population rose to 500. The Treaty of Reciprocity and the Civil War encouraged continued growth, with the population rising again to 600 by 1871. However, Vittoria was reaching its peak; the railroad had passed further north and as the significance of the village declined, so too did its population and proportionately that of the church and in 1976, Christ Church officially closed its doors to weekly services. Fortunately, though, despite the fact that there are only seven members of the congregation still with us in this bicentennial year, services continue to be held twice yearly in this historic building.
There was still some interior work remaining as of 1848 and it has been speculated that noted Vittoria cabinetmaker, Archibald Reid may have worked on the interior furnishings, as he came to the area in 1847. (Though he made furniture and cabinetry of every kind - including coffins, he was noted particularly for his unique staircases, usually spiralling, which were built in his shop on Brock Street and then moved and reassembled in the homes for which they were designed. Fortunately, some examples of his fine craftsmanship have survived - at least four of these staircases still exist in homes in the village to this day.)
The structure, outside and in, displays a number of Regency characteristics, a style popular at the time. The exterior is clad with flush-boarding, beveled on either matching edge, and grooved to imitate the vertical joints of ashlar masonry. The corners of the building are finished with heavier pieces of plank similarly moulded and arranged to form quoins, or cornerstones. The textural illusion of stone was strengthened when the church was first built, by dashing fine sand against the freshly painted walls. This remarkable detailing was intended to impart a monumentality to a wooden building, as stone was considered the most magnificent and desirable of building materials.
In the latter part of the 19th century, however, the moral sense of the later Victorians was offended by such 'dishonesty', of making one material appear to be another and might easily have resulted in an update to suit this new sensibility, which makes the survival, intact, of such a fine example of this unique style all the more remarkable.
The interior, too, has some very impressive qualities. And other than a small gallery added later to the rear of the nave, little change has occurred. The Regency-Gothic style continues, as evidenced on the inset panels of the altar- table. The pulpit is a particularly fine piece of cabinetwork, made of solid walnut, with its beautifully crafted mouldings and panels enhancing the lovely figure of the wood. The pews, now minus the doors they would have had originally, are paneled with equal simplicity. (Some of these doors have survived and are inside the church - in fact, at some point in the past, several of them were affixed together and fashioned into a larger door, which still remains, for the entrance to the gallery upstairs).
As the Gothic Revival became increasingly popular in the latter part of the 19th century, it was felt by the proponents of this style that oak was somehow more 'authentic', more appropriate for the wood surfaces in a house of worship. It was likely a popular concession to this fashion, then, that resulted in the pews of Christ Church being painted with a faux-graining in later years to resemble oak. But it appears to be the only significant alteration in favour of this trend. Most everything else, including the lovely distinctive Regency glazing of the windows, remained unchanged. So, other than the graining on the pews, and the addition of the gallery and the vestries flanking the entrance, probably added at the same time (and done with great respect to the integrity of the original structure), the building looks much as it did to the people who built it. Consequently, we have been left with a very rare and beautiful building, largely intact and unspoiled by time.
There were many great citizens of Vittoria who considered Christ Church their spiritual and social centre over the years, whose spirits and stories have since become part of the lore of our town. There was the late Miss J. Palmer, for example, the granddaughter of Mr. Joseph Tisdale whom it was mentioned earlier was responsible for providing the timber and much of the labour for the construction of the church. Miss Palmer taught school in this district and worshipped in Christ Church for over 95 years (she died at the age of 100). And she always sat in the same pew, now marked with a brass plaque placed in her memory. Imagine. And there was Dr. and Mrs. McInnes, around the turn of the century, whose handsome brick home still stands at the southwest corner of Lamport and Murray Streets. They have become part of legend by virtue of their roots in British aristocracy, their great sense of style and their civilized ritual of high tea in the garden in fine weather - and their particular fondness for cocktails, and their chauffeur whose duties included motoring to Simcoe daily (when motoring was a new craze) for their favourite brand of gin. There was Mary Maskelyne who lived in the former Mabee home in the 1930's, now a designated historic property, just west of the McInnes home, who had been described by folks who remember her as 'very round' and somewhat eccentric, who could be seen most days going to the shops on Brock Street with an unusually wide-brimmed straw hat perched flatly atop her round face and a straw market basket draped over her arm. There was Frank Smith who lived immediately south of Dr. McInnes. He took up the collection for many years and had a habit of jingling his change in his pocket (presumably to encourage fuller coffers), and Mary Smith who played the organ for just as many years. There were the Dunkins, the Farrars, the Taylors, the Walkers. And there was Rev. Mr. Johnstone who usually came from Dover in his horse and buggy in the company of Mr. Roberts, a Presbyterian. Or sometimes in the summer months he traveled by sailboat to Port Ryerse, completing the trip to Vittoria by bicycle.
In true Vittoria fashion, the care and concern of the community has ensured that Christ Church and its stories will continue to be a part of the town's heritage and legacy: in 1995, the trustees of the church spearheaded a major restoration project of the building, taking great care to retain its integrity as it was originally designed. And what a glorious service was held on a lovely autumn Sunday of that year, the work completed, the inside of the church awash with the gentle hues of the window glass carried on the afternoon light, the sills and the altar-table decorated with fresh flowers and the bounty of the harvest, and the rich baritone voice of the carpenter responsible for the restoration work leading the congregation in hymns of thanks.
As this historic church building makes its way into the 21st century, it continues to inspire as a house of worship, holding two services each year - one in late spring and one in early autumn.
But it also continues to inspire as an architectural gem, occupying a place of pride in the historic architecture of Vittoria. Its Board of Trustees currently includes James Christison and Everett Lampman. This exceptional group of heritage-minded people continues to ensure that Christ Church in Vittoria is kept in fine form through heritage-sensitive maintenance and by reintroducing lost elements.
For example, there once stood a wood-burning stove near the back of the church in the 19th century, but was replaced sometime in the second quarter of the 20th century with a modern gas-burning unit. Recently, this one was removed (as gas no longer services the building) and was replaced with a period-appropriate late 19th century cast iron box stove. Though no longer used as a wood-burning stove, it recreates an ambiance virtually identical to that of an earlier period.
Current plans are afoot to restore the two vestries flanking the entrance as well as to re-hang some of the original pew doors that still retain their original finish.
All of this is done through the dedication and hard work of these enthusiastic trustees, who organize yard sales and other fundraisers to ensure this church is protected for future generations. One of our current fundraising efforts entails the sale of a limited edition of beautifully designed souvenir plates, capturing the church in a full-colour watercolour image on a fluted porcelain plate. They are available through any of the Trustees.
If you ever find yourself in Vittoria in early June or October, please join us for one of our services in this glorious building, lovingly handed down to us by our ancestors.