The history of the oldest parish church in the Toronto area is also the history of North Toronto and a changing culture.
The War of 1812 was barely over when the people of York Mills felled the trees that would become the first St. John’s Anglican Church. Built in 1816 on land donated by pioneer settlers Joseph and Catherine Shepard, the little log church was the first outpost of St. James Church in the Town of York and the first parish church in what would one day become the City of Toronto. The brick church that stands there today, high on the land overlooking Hogg’s Hollow, was completed in 1844. Though enlarged and improved over the years, it continues to serve as a welcoming place of worship and a valuable repository of Canadian history.
About the authors
Scott Kennedy witnessed the farms surrounding his North York childhood home being planted with a new cash crop of buildings. He joined the Toronto Musicians' Association in 1969, but as a professional musician he never lost his passion for history. He traces the evolution of a Toronto neighbourhood in his book Willowdale. Scott lives in a Historical Conservation District he helped create in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood.
Jeanne Hopkins spent most of her life in the historic Henry Farm community of North York. She realized her passion for local history in the Canadiana department of the North York Public Library, where she worked for 27 years. She is the author of many articles and five books of local history. She lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: 200 Years at St. John's York Mills: The Oldest Church in Toronto (by (author) Scott Kennedy; with Jeanne Hopkins)
When the Reverend Lewis Garnsworthy was inducted as the ninth rector in St. John’s history on the evening of Wednesday, February 24, 1960, many felt that he had big shoes to fill. After all, he was succeeding the longest serving incumbent in the parish’s history, Arthur Clendenning McCollum, who had served for thirty-four years. However, Archdeacon McCollum himself put that notion to rest when he noted dryly that “The Good Lord did not give him my shoes to fill: he must fill his own.”
The new incumbent inherited a healthy, growing parish in an area of Toronto that was still in the middle of a post-war building boom. Arthur McCollum had presided over a time that saw new housing developments built on much of the former farmland in the area. He had tried to visit every one of the new households and invite the residents to join his parish, demonstrating a long-standing Anglican notion that the rector was responsible for everyone in his parish, not just the Anglicans. By the time Lewis Garnsworthy arrived, the nearby St. Andrew’s Golf Club had been sold for a new housing development that by 1964 would stretch from Old Yonge Street to Bayview Avenue. Other subdivisions — such as Silver Hills, near the southwest corner of Leslie Street and Highway 401 — were popping up all over the area at the same time, providing even more potential parishioners. The new rector, along with his wife Jean, son Peter, and daughter Kathy, settled into the rectory at 174 Old Yonge Street and got down to business.
Lewis Garnsworthy brought with him a reputation as a “preacher of some note,” as Jim O’Neil once remarked, and before long his sermons were attracting Anglicans from all over the city. In 1963, a nine-thirty service was added to the eight o’clock and eleven o’clock Sunday morning services to handle the overflow. In April 1963, Lewis wrote and delivered a series of talks for a CBL (CBC) radio program called Plain Talk. His six-talk series included one on Prayer, the Clergy, Hymns, the Bible, Going to Church, and the Family Unit. Throughout the rest of 1963, there was so much traffic in the parking lot on Sunday mornings that sidesmen were pressed into service as traffic police.
In 1964 Lewis Garnsworthy was appointed canon of the Cathedral of St. James in downtown Toronto. In 1966 he presided over the 150th anniversary services at St. John’s York Mills. Planning for the anniversary began in 1964. The addition to the church that came to be known as the Arthur C. McCollum Wing was constructed as the centrepiece of the celebrations. One of the more interesting stories concerning the fundraising for the project involved well-known parishioner and wealthy businessman E.P. Taylor. At that time, Mr. Taylor lived nearby on Bayview Avenue at Windfields Farm, where he bred race horses. It seems that when E.P. was first approached, he was told that the construction would cost $225,000. After doing a quick calculation in his head, he concluded that the actual cost would be closer to $250,000, and since he never contributed more than 10 percent of any given project, he wrote St. John’s a cheque for $25,000.
The 150th Anniversary Parish Dinner was held in the Centennial Ballroom of the Inn on the Park, the much-loved, mid-century modernist hotel that once graced the northeast corner of Leslie Street and Eglinton Avenue East. Sadly, the main parts of the hotel were demolished in 2006. By 2015, the ballrooms and the tower built in the 1970s to accommodate additional guests were also gone.
On Thursday, November 21, 1968, the new wing of St. John’s York Mills was dedicated. Lewis Garnsworthy had named the Arthur C. McCollum Wing in honour of Archdeacon McCollum, who had died on February 18, 1967. Lewis Garnsworthy had been elected Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Toronto on October 8, 1968. He was consecrated on Saturday, November 30, 1968, and granted permission to remain at St. John’s until the end of the year.
For the buffs out there, several chapters are devoted to the history of the area and the origins of the names of local streets, something that continues to fascinate me.
Other titles by Scott Kennedy
Toronto Local History 3-Book Bundle
Don Mills / 200 Years at St. John's York Mills / Willowdale
From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change
Toronto Neighbourhoods 7-Book Bundle
A City in the Making / Unbuilt Toronto / Unbuilt Toronto 2 / Leaside / Opportunity Road / Willowdale / The Yonge Street Story, 1793-1860
Yesterday's Farms, Today's Legacy