The Early History of Grace Anglican Church, Waterdown

During 1985, Grace Anglican Church, Waterdown, is celebrating the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the parish. This Heritage Paper looks at the early history of this village church from its inception several years before the first building was erected.

By a generous donation in 1847, Frederick Feilde and his wife, Elizabeth Gildart Campbell, issued a deed for approximately two acres of land on the north side of the village of Waterdown, to be used as the site for a church building, rectory and cemetery. Frederick Feilde had served in the Napoleonic Wars with his father, Captain James Feilde, and his brother, Fulford Feilde, who was deputy commissary general in the British army. Both young men had come to Canada during the 1830s and were typical of the numerous half-pay officers who settled in Upper Canada at this time.

The property that the Feildes donated was purchased from Absalom Griffin and his wife, Harriet Smith, on 4 February 1847. The record of the purchase in the Land Registry Book for Concession 3, Lot 7, describes the property as being “2a1r11p Part Lot 3A. Griffin’s Surrey (1)“. The boundary of the property includes Ransom Street*, named after Absalom Griffin’s eldest son who drowned in Hamilton Bay in June 1850, three years after his parents sold the property to the Feildes.

The Rev. Robert Cordner, Rector of Grace Anglican Church, Waterdown, wrote in 1903:

“The history of Waterdown Parish, so far as I can gather begins about 45 or 50 years ago when it seems to have had occasional services at first by travelling missionaries. According to the Baptismal Register, the first regular services seem to be by the Rev. A. P. Morris who I believe was the Headmaster of the Grammar School in Hamilton. He held services in the Township hall during the years of 1858, 1859, and 1860, when the Rev. George Noel Higginson was appointed the first regular Incumbent of the Parish. During his Incumbency the Church was built.” (2)

Although the Feildes deeded the property to Rev. John Strachan, Lord Bishop of Toronto, and his successors on the same day that they concluded the purchase from Absalom Griffin, it appears that funds to build the church were not immediately available, so services continued in the Town Hall until 1860. Then a small building for worship was erected, but within five years, because of the growing congregation, it had to be enlarged.

At this time, Rev. H. Stringfellow took charge of the parish. Rev. Robert Cordner described the new minister … “He was I am told, so attractive a preacher that the Church was found too small to accommodate the crowds that attended at every service.” (3) The minister had fled from the southern states during the American Civil War, a circumstance which alone would have made him of interest to the people of Waterdown. To enlarge the church, the west end was removed, and the walls extended about twenty feet. No early sketches or photographs of the original building are known to exist, but the Heritage Society does possess pictures of the church ca. 1900-1905, prior to the building of the Parish Hall and Vestry.

The Incumbency of Rev. Stringfellow only lasted about a year, and when he returned to the States, he was succeeded by the Rev. Stewart Houston, who took charge of the Parish of Waterdown and Lowville on 21 October 1866. The two parishes were linked until 1870, when Lowville ceased to be part of the parish, and St. Matthew-on-the-Plains, Aldershot, came under the charge of Mr. Houston. During this time, the Rectory was built, and it is interesting to note that in the records of both St. George’s Lowville (October 5, 1869) and Grace Anglican (Waterdown, May 13, 1869), names are listed of the persons who promised to pay in two annual instalments, funds towards … “the erection of a Parsonage House for the use of the present incumbent of the Parish of Waterdown, and his successors, on the lot provided for the purpose adjacent to Grace Church in said parish”. (4)

In 1878, the Rev. John Francis was appointed Incumbent, and during the next decade, the Parish seems to have experienced a period of unrest and trouble. The records of St. Matthew’s, Aldershot, tell of the splendid work accomplished by Mr. Francis in the church there, yet for unknown reasons, Grace Church did not prosper. Mr. Francis left the parish for a time, and Rev. J. C. Munson was appointed locum tenens, but on Mr. Francis’ return, the Waterdown congregation strongly opposed his taking charge of St. Matthew’s, though he continued to live in the Rectory at Waterdown until 1890, when the Rev. Arthur Boultbee took charge of both parishes. It appears that during this time of trouble at Grace Church, a number of people severed their connections with the Church. Some of the names which appeared on the subscription list for the Rectory in 1869 left the congregation and began attending the local Methodist Church.

Map of Waterdown Village, 1875, taken from “Illustrated Atlas of Wentworth County”. Note that the Anglican Church is labelled the Episcopalian Church, and also the large number of churches in the village core — 7 in total.

The Parish was vacant until November 1890, during which time services were held, chiefly by the Rev. A. E. Miller of Hamilton. In November, the Rev. Robert Cordner was appointed to the charge of Waterdown and Aldershot. After the troubled times of the previous Incumbent, Rev. Cordner was a devoted minister and, although revenues sparse and attendance not large, the church survived. St. Matthew’s experienced similar problems, and a comment in the records of the church gives some insight into the character and work of Rev. Cordner … “Those were poor days financially, but from dear, kind, faithful Mr. Cordner no complaint came”. (5) His tireless devotion and faithful service made him beloved by his congregation.

In 1903, the Rev. A. B. Higginson, a distant relative of the first Incumbent of the parish, succeeded Mr. Cordner. Mr. Higginson’s tenure of office was all too short, for in the few years of his ministry in Waterdown, he accomplished much in organising a growing parish. In 1906 he was succeeded by the Rev. Thomas McKim and in 1908, the Rev. J. Douglas. Again a period of activity during this minister’s appointment, as the records show that the Parish Hall and Vestry were built, and with the founding of a branch of the Women’s Auxiliary, and influence upon the social life of the church began to be felt. With the appointment of Rev. E. A. Slack in 1922, the congregation of Grace Church decided that they wished to be on their own as a parish, and so the long association with St. Matthew’s, Aldershot, came to an end. However, the records show that at the same time, St. John’s, Nelson, became associated with Grace Church.

In 1928, the Rev. E. E. Lake began a ministry at Grace Church that covered a period of twenty-three years. Again the parish faced great difficulties but … “Mr. Lake with great faith and unselfish service, constantly supported by the unfailing help of his wife, did a splendid work in the parish which will always stand out in its history. Financially the parish was not strong, as is indicated by the fact that in 1940, the records reveal, Mr. Lake received as a stipend from the parish, the sum of nine hundred and seventeen dollars, and that at the end of 1939, the parish owed him ninety-two dollars on stipend!”. (6)

In this brief outline of Grace Church’s early history, details regarding incidents and individuals who were part of the story during the first years are few, due mainly to the lack of records. But the years of progress and years of setbacks — the fate of any small church in its early years — are part of the history of the Village of Waterdown.

(1) Instrument #526 Land Registry Book: Waterdown, Lot 7, Concession 3
* Ransom Street was the original name of Main Street, north of Dundas Street.
(2) “History of Grace Church, Waterdown” — Rev. Robert Cordner, Anglican Church Archives, Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.
(3) Ibid
(4) “Grace Church, Waterdown, One Hundred Years of Growth 1860-1960”.
(5) Ibid
(6) Ibid

References:

Land Registry Book: Waterdown, Lot 7, Concession 3.
“History of Grace Church, Waterdown” — Rev. Robert Cordner, Anglican Church Archives, Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.
“Grace Church, Waterdown, One Hundred Years of Growth 1860-1960”.
“Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Wentworth”. Page & Smith, Toronto, 1875.
Conversation with Mrs. W. Donkin.

Originally published in Heritage Happenings, May 1985.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1985, 2020

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