St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church, Waterdown – Part II

This paper is the conclusion to the story of St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church, Waterdown, with a collection of reminiscences of parish life and history as recalled by members of the congregation.

Travel to the church has changed greatly over the years and the early Catholic settlers, with no church in Waterdown, often travelled great distance to attend services.

Donald Stewart of Bannffshire, Scotland, who emigrated to Canada in 1839 and settled on the Seventh Concession, East Flamborough, is said to have walked to Oakville to attend Mass. He was married at St. Andrew’s Church in Oakville in 1845, and the Baptismal Certificate for a daughter born to this family is among the church records at Oakville.

Miss Gertrude English, who died in 1980, recalled that her grandmother, Mrs. James Gallivan (nee Mary Maloney)1 used to walk to Freelton to attend Mass, and before a church was established at Freelton, Catholics were known to travel to St. Augustine’s Parish in Dundas.

Another parishioner recalled her mother getting the family ready and walking from their home in the village to the site of the old church off Highway #5, with others arriving by horse and buggy, and democrats and surreys from the Aldershot area. Mr. Duncan Robson remembered funeral corteges arriving led by horse-drawn hearses.

During winter, the weather occasionally caused services to be cancelled, as the priest had to travel to the village to celebrate Mass. After Mass he would visit the home of a parishioner each week and have dinner with the family before returning by horse and buggy to Freelton. It is reported that Father Becker (1909-1924) used to pick up the Baptist Minister in Freelton and bring him to Waterdown, since the distance between residence and church was relatively great, considering transportation. Benediction was always given immediately after Mass. The sacred vessels used at Mass would be kept in private homes during the week.

The land on which the old church was built did not always have immediate access to Dundas Street, possibly due to planning developments unforeseen at the time Mr. Thomas English donated the property. W. O. Sealey2, who was not of the Catholic faith, provided sufficient land in a deed dated 12 June 1908 to allow access to what is now Highway #5 for a nominal sum.

Map of Waterdown Village, 1903, taken from “Wentworth County Historical Atlas.” Note that the Roman Catholic Church (labelled R.C.Ch.) is completely surrounded by the property owned by W.O. Sealey with no access to Dundas Street.

The old church being built of stone must have been quite uncomfortable in winter. The first man to arrive at the church on Sunday would accept responsibility for lighting the woodstove at the back of the church. The building, however, never did get warm enough in the winter. The church was illuminated by kerosene lamps that were liable to char the face of the person attempting to light them, and this form of lighting continued during the life of the church. When the new church was completed, the old church was for all practical purposes abandoned, and it slowly fell into disuse, although the site continued to be used as a cemetery. Father McHugh (1932-1942) had hoped to change the function of the building to that of a parish centre, but it too was abandoned. In 1937 the building was demolished by the Fred Carson and Sons Company3.

The present church opened in 1915 and saw the gathering together of both church and civic dignitaries. The parishioners were justifiably proud of the new church and many of the items in use to the present day were donated by those who assisted in the construction.

The High Altar was originally built for and installed in the old church. It had been donated by Thomas Organ and built according to a blueprint design he brought back from Ireland. The original organ was a pump organ with mechanical stops and this was in use until the 1950’s. The pews were, it is thought, brought to the present church from another one, the location of which is not known. While they exist in substantially the same form as when first installed, the dividers fitted in the centre of each section were removed in 1977 by local craftsman Albert Stevens.

The original decor of the new church was quite elaborate when compared to that of the present day. Some indication of the original decoration can be seen in the ceiling, which, because of the difficulties involved in scaffolding, remains intact, though somewhat dulled by the intervening years. The beautiful oil painting depicting Christ and St. Thomas was commissioned during Father McHugh’s pastorate. Sister Gertrude, S.S.N.D., and artist at Notre Dame Convent, carried out the task. This same artist was responsible for the painting of Our Blessed Lady in the sanctuary at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Freelton, in the early 1930’s.

The new church was illuminated by a series of white glass globe-shaped lights suspended from the ceiling by long chains. While these were a definite improvement on the kerosene lamps, in that they provided greater illumination, they were a source of great distraction to the young. Unable to amuse themselves by the comic backfire of the old kerosene lamps, they turned to the more scientific pursuits of counting the insects trapped in the globes!!

In this brief collection of stories from the history of St. Thomas Church, the parish, from its beginnings, has been one that has grown slowly and steadily with years of progress and years of setbacks, but always an important part of the history of the village of Waterdown.

  1. “West Flamborough Marriages 1869-1889”: Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society Archives.
  2. William Oscar Sealey (26 January 1859 – 7 January 1940) was first elected Reeve of the incorporated village of Waterdown 1896, and in 1908 became the Liberal M.P. for Wentworth South.
  3. Photograph of Fred and Cecil Carson, demolition of old Catholic Church, 1937. Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society.
References:

“St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church” Catholic Women’s League, Co-ordinator Mrs. Mary Meagher, Waterdown, July 1979.

Vertical Files on the Carson Family, Sealey Family and English Family, Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society Archives.

“West Flamborough Township marriages 1869-1889.” Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society Archives.

“1903 Wentworth County Historical Atlas”

Originally published in Heritage Happenings, January 1987.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1987, 2021.

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.

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