This article was originally published in 1986, when the church still occupied the building at the corner of Flamboro and Barton Streets. See the Editor’s Note for more info.
This is the first of a two-part article on St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church, Waterdown. The present church, located at the corner of Flamboro and Barton Streets, is the third church built in Waterdown to serve the needs of this parish. The church at Waterdown is referred to by the name of St. Francis as well as the name of St. Thomas by which it is presently known. It is believed that the original church bore the name of St. Francis, but this, subsequent to the donation of land by Thomas English in 1852, was changed to St. Thomas the Apostle.
By 1846, Catholic pioneers had settled in the Waterdown area in sufficient numbers that a small wooden church was constructed. Prior to this, during the first half of the nineteenth century, their needs were served by priests stationed at Oakville and Dundas. Mass was celebrated in private homes by circuit or itinerant priests, probably from the Society of Jesus, and special occasions, such as marriages and baptisms, were cause for a journey to the church at Oakville.
The land (Lot 8, Concession 3, East Flamborough Township) on which the early churches and cemetery were located1 was originally part of the grant of over 1,000 acres given to Alexander McDonnell who, as a Crown Patentee, obtained Lots 4, 5, 7, 8 and 13 in Concession 3, with registrations being made between 1796 and 1800. Part of this property was purchased by an English immigrant, Thomas English2. A successful mill builder who had settled in Nelson Township before moving to Waterdown during the early 1840’s, Thomas English’s gift to the Catholic Diocese of Toronto dated 10 June 1852 states that:
. . . . his successors forever upon trust to hold the same forever hereafter for the use of a church and burying ground for the members of the church of Rome residing within the said Diocese and to no other interest or purpose whatsoever . . .
Within a few years, the frame building appears to have been replaced by a more permanent one, a stone church, which was in use until the building of the present church was completed in 1915. In the “County of Wentworth and Hamilton City Directory for 1865-66,” the Waterdown entry lists the churches of the village and records, “the Roman Catholic Church was erected in 1850, of stone, and cost about $1200, capable of seating 500 persons”. The stone church was blessed and dedicated by Rev. Father O’Dwyer on 16 June 1864. Even though there was a church to serve the needs of the people in the village and surrounding area, there was no permanent priest. The church was attended by priests from larger parishes. From c. 1856 until 1877 the Church was under the care of St. Mary’s parish in Hamilton. These priests came to offer the Liturgy and care for the residents of the area. Entries in local Directories during the 1860’s note that priests came from Hamilton and Oakville. The 1865-66 Directory records that Waterdown had “no settled priest: services every two weeks by missionary from Hamilton”, and in 1867-68, “Father Ryan, priest, services every two weeks by missionary from Oakville.”
In 1877, the village of Freelton was chosen to have a resident priest because it had a greater concentration of Catholic families3, and Waterdown was transferred to be under its control as a mission church, and remained thus until 1950 when it was awarded parish status.
The first priest to serve the Freelton-Waterdown parish was Rev. William Lillis (1877-82) who commenced his tenure 27 August, 1877. A report dated 3 August 1880 concerning the activities of the parish during the calendar year 1879, and signed by Rev. Lillis, contains many items of interest. “There are three churches in the district: Freelton, Waterdown and Morriston . . . sixty families are attached to the Church at Freelton, about twenty-eight to Waterdown, and three or four to Morriston.” The report mentions ‘stations’, the Eucharist and administer the Sacraments . . . “the stations having no Church are Campbellville and Nelson, I go to each place once a year during Eastertime.” There is also mention of cemeteries in the area, “the cemetery attached to Freelton Church is a comparatively new one . . . the proceeds are applicable to Church purposes. There is no debt either on the Freelton cemetery or that at Waterdown. The receipts are very scanty.” The report concluded with a reference to a school, . . . “there is a small separate school numbering at an average 20 pupils.”4
During the tenure of Rev. William Becker (1909-1924), the present Waterdown church, a brick structure, was erected, begun in 1914 and finished in 1915. One interesting story about the construction of the new church concerns the bricks used in the building. These were donated by Peter Cheeseman, a wealthy brickyard owner. Bill Galivan and other residents of the area would bring a load of bricks back to the site of the new church each time they took a load of produce back to market. As a result of this generosity, sufficient bricks were transported from the brickyard opposite the present Cathedral of Christ the King to Waterdown to complete the project.
The cornerstone was laid by his Excellency Bishop Dowling in 1914, and the dedication of the building a year later was a grand occasion with a gathering of both church and civic dignitaries. With the completion of the new church, the old one on the outskirts of the village fell into disuse, although the site continued to be used as a cemetery. The building itself was abandoned and, in 1937, the company of Fred Carson and Sons demolished it.
Steady and continuing growth resulted in Bishop Ryan establishing Waterdown as a separate parish in 1950, naming Rev. Joseph P. Cremmen (1950-74) the first pastor. With his accession to office, Father Cremmen organised parishioners to form a Separate School Board, and saw the establishment of a school in the village that was opened on 26 August 1951, approximately 100 years after the establishment of the first church.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1986, 2021.
“St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church”Catholic Women’s League, Co-ordinator Mrs. Mary Meagher, Waterdown, July 1979.“County of Wentworth and Hamilton City Directory for 1865-66” Mitchell & Co., Toronto 1865.Transcription from “St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church Cemetery, Waterdown, Ontario.” Hamilton Branch O.G.S. 1977.Land Registry Book: East Flamborough Township Concession 3.
Editor’s Note:Erected in 1914, St. Thomas was Waterdown’s third Catholic church. It thrived in the years that followed, and by 1990 the congregation had outgrown its historic home. The parish later rebuilt on Centre Road and the property was declared surplus.In 2002, the church and the land surrounding it — around 1.4 acres — was bought by a developer. He restored the building and transformed it into seven rent-geared-to-income apartments for older adults.