It was on an October weekend in 1832 that one of the earliest settlers in Oakville by the name of Justus Wright Williams, rode his horse over to Nelson Chapel to attend the Quarterly meeting of the Nelson Circuit of the Methodist church. This was the first known connection of the Oakville Methodists with other pioneer congregations, and this is the official date recorded as the beginning of the congregation of St. John’s United Church.
Justus Williams was a leader, a community activist, a great contributor to the early life of Oakville. During his lifetime, his leadership qualities were evidenced in his diverse community roles as a founder of the Temperance Society, Town Warden, Secretary of the School Board, Treasurer of the Municipality and Justice of the Peace. Although he was an Anglican by birth, he and his wife started the first Sabbath school for the children of the community, and soon became the leader in establishing a Methodist chapel in Oakville, personally financing much of the cost. This chapel was built at the corner of Lakeshore Road and Thomas Street where the Bank of Montreal stands today. It was dedicated in October of 1840, but in less than a year, it was sold to the Anglicans due to a lack of support.
After this inauspicious beginning, the Methodists reverted to meeting in the school house where they had gathered in the earliest days. A few years later when Temperance Hall was built on Trafalgar Road at Randall Street (where the new condominium is under construction), the congregation moved there for Sunday services. Finally, in 1851, a successful building campaign enabled the purchase of the lot at Dunn and Randall Streets and building began. The official opening of the new church took place on January 18, 1852. Five years later, to accommodate their growing numbers, a gallery or balcony was added and for the next twenty years, this church served the Methodist congregation well; but the population was increasing, and so was the congregation of the Oakville Methodist Church.
In the 1870′s, replacing old wood frame churches with new more substantial brick churches was the prevalent architectural trend. The Trustees began meeting more regularly under the leadership of the Rev. T.S. Howard, a known church builder who had led the Sheridan Wesleyan Methodists in the building of their new church in 1869. His encouragement and drive undeniably had much to do with the successful campaign for the new Oakville Wesleyan Methodist church built in 1877. Of course, he had some outstanding Trustees to assist him. Among them were Dr. Charles Lusk, physician and educator, John Potter, local builder, William McCraney, MP for the County of Halton, Isaac Warcup, owner of the grist and flour mill, William H. Young, merchant, school trustee, councillor, mayor, William Savage, prosperous farmer and esteemed orator.
The new church was dedicated at a memorable service on January 13, 1878 with guest preacher Dr. Benoni Ives, known as “the Great Dedicator,” from Auburn, N.Y. Before he completed his morning sermon, enough money had been pledged by the congregation to completely pay for the church, organ, sheds and fence, a total of $14,000. The morning service was so lengthy that the afternoon service had to be cancelled! Undeterred, Oakville’s Methodist faithful turned out in droves for the evening service with the legendary Rev. Egerton Ryerson as the guest preacher.
The Oakville congregation continued to grow and prosper throughout the 1890′s and into the early part of the 20th century. In 1894, a new pipe organ was donated by the Wass family (who lived in the magnificent home at what is now 457 Lakeshore Road East at Balsam Drive). Major renovations were undertaken in 1915 when the Sunday School room was enlarged, new seating (without doors) was installed in the church, and four stained glass windows replaced the old frosted coloured glass.
This period in our history has been referred to as “the Golden Age” when the church was the hub of the predominantly British society. The church was not only the spiritual centre of the community, but it was the place where social activities such as sleigh rides, picnics, parlour games and the endeavours of the international Epworth League brought young people together. There were tea meetings and bazaars organized by the ladies as fund raising projects, but the men were definitely in charge of the administration of the church. However, one prominent lady, Miss Rebecca Wass, was elected to the Board of Trustees in 1915. She was an astute business woman, having inherited the wealth of her father, William Wass. She was not only generous with her financial support, but was the founder of a young ladies’ Bible class in 1911 known as the Ever Faithful Bible Class. This class continued meeting long after Rebecca died. In fact, there were still regular meetings of this faithful group until the early 1980′s.
In 1920, a true “pillar” of the church, Dr. Charles Lusk, passed away. He and his wife had been faithful members almost from the day they moved to Oakville in 1869. They lived in the lovely old house at 205 Trafalgar Road. His name appears in the minutes of the Board of Trustees as early as 1873, serving as Treasurer during the time of the building of the church, and he was still on that Board in 1914. He served as Sunday School Superintendent for 31 years, and so when it was decided to build a new wing for the Sunday School in 1923, it is understandable that it became known as Lusk Hall.
A major change for the Oakville Methodist Church took place in 1925 when the union of the Methodists, Congregationalists and some of the Presbyterians took place to form the United Church of Canada. This Oakville church became St. John’s United Church, appropriately named after John the apostle, and the three original leaders of the three uniting churches: John Wesley of the Methodists, John Knox of the Presbyterians and John Robinson of the congregationalists.
The congregation of St. John’s flourished throughout the 1920′s, a fact well documented in published annual reports. But when the 1930′s arrived, Oakville was affected by the Depression along with the rest of the country. The debt incurred in building Lusk Hall had not been fully discharged, and with many out of work, offerings reflected the economic times.
Despite the hard times of the 1930′s, major renovations took place once again in the church sanctuary in 1938. The seating was changed from having two aisles to three aisles, just as it is today. The wings of the gallery were cut back for the second time, to the present position. New paint, new carpeting for the aisles and platform, and a new furnace completed the improvements..
Like every other community in Canada after the war, Oakville began to expand and prosper. It became clear in the early 1950′s that more space was needed in the church to better serve the young families. Another major renovation took place which included building a chancel where the old gymnasium had been. This allowed more space for seating in the main sanctuary with the choir, organist and minister seated in the chancel. A new Casavant pipe organ was installed, and a narthex or vestibule was built on the front of the church, greatly altering both the exterior facade and the interior appearance of the church.
Even with these additions and improvements, the church was over crowded. Two Sunday morning services barely met the needs of the congregation. At the height of the baby boom, over 500 children attended Sunday School. Early in 1954, a committee was formed to survey the whole area and to make recommendations as to where new churches might be located. Halton Presbytery set up an “extension fund” to which all churches contributed for the purpose of purchasing new church sites. A student minister was hired for the summer of 1955 to work in the Suffolk Park and Maple Grove areas. As a result, St. Paul’s and Maple Grove United Churches were born, with St. John’s people providing much needed assistance.
With these newly formed churches, many members left St. John’s to go them, but there was still over crowding in the Sunday School. This led the Official Board to begin making plans for a new Christian Education building to be built on the lot next to the church. However this plan never materialized, and instead, major renovations were made to Lusk Hall in 1967, including the addition of a new back entrance and a church office.
There was much controversy in 1969 when the old manse, next door to the church, was demolished after 100 years of use by twenty-four different ministers and their families. Local papers trumpeted headlines, “Oakville: For people or for cars?” challenging the property’s conversion to a parking lot. Another headline, “Councillor fights to save two homes,” defended the preservation of the manse and the sexton’s house behind it. However, the ravages of age and dry rot forced a decision to demolish both homes.
St. John’s is much more than bricks and mortar. The people who support it are what makes it a living and loving community. Outreach has always been a priority with this congregation, but it wasn’t until 1991 that a formal Mission Statement was created which expresses what this congregation is all about. It reads:
“We are St. John’s United Church, A member of God’s loving family. We are called to be a caring people, Reaching out to each other, our neighbours, and all God’s people. We are committed to nurturing our Christian faith through worship, study, fellowship and service. We are striving to exemplify the life and the love of Jesus Christ.”
In 2008, the congregation of St. John’s agreed to the sale of the land that the original manse had occupied, and that the town of Oakville had leased for almost 30 years for municipal parking. The proceeds from the sale funded extensive renovations to the entire property, with the firm of Black and Moffat architects working closely with the congregation on a vision for the future. The area between the original church and the 1923 Hall addition was completely de-constructed and re-designed. Bricks and other materials uncovered from both buildings were re-claimed and used in the entry and office areas. All three floors of the Hall were transformed into bright, functional spaces made fully accessible by a lift. The chancel area of the church was extended, and the pulpit and lectern were re-designed for portability, which has extended the use of the sanctuary for performances and concerts. New glass doors at most entrances have transformed interior spaces into welcoming areas.
From the early days when boxes of warm clothes and goodies were sent to the soldiers in the two wars, to the freight cars loaded with supplies for prairie farmers, to the raising of funds through our Power of One outreach to help those in need both locally and around the world, to the support of a youth centre, assisting in the purchase of a Red Cross van, this congregation will continue to strive to exemplify the life and love of Jesus Christ for many generations to come. The next time you are walking in down town Oakville and you hear the Carillon chimes of St. John’s, remember that they are calling you to come and join us, and to help make this a better world.
For more than 180 years, St. John’s has been reaching out to all of God’s people.