June 20 was Doors Open Kingston, when various organizations and historic sites let people in their doors to look around for free. (The event is held across Ontario at different times – click here to find out when it’s happening elsewhere.) Since a lot of churches were taking part this year, I decided it would be fun to visit each of them and post about it here. Sadly though, I was too late to visit two of them – St. Andrew’s Presbyterian and St. Paul’s Anglican – which is kind of frustrating because they’re very interesting churches with a lot of history. I’ll have to get back to them later this summer, but I did manage to get to three this past Saturday: Chalmers United, Sydenham Street United, and St. George’s Anglican Cathedral.
Before I start, I have to say Kingston has had an extraordinary amount of churches. Just on Clergy Street there are St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Andrew’s, and Queen Street United (formerly Methodist, and now being turned into condos). There were also once two churches on Brock Street, Cooke’s Presbyterian and Brock Street Methodist; plus the Congregationalist church on Wellington, now a daycare; the Catholic Apostolic church on Queen Street, now Renaissance Event Venue; St. James’ Anglican on Union Street… the list goes on, literally. The 1893-94 Kingston directory needs nearly two full pages to list all the religious groups in Kingston and their activities. Obviously, religion was an essential part of life to many people, which is why churches are such meaningful places for local history. I’ll begin my post here with the first place I visited, Chalmers United Church.
Chalmers United Church
For years, I mostly associated Chalmers Church with the story of the misogynistic organist ghost who allegedly haunts it, which they tell about on the Kingston Haunted Walk. As a kid I was a little scared of even walking past the place, but it’s very cheerful inside…
This is the second version of Chalmers Church in Kingston. Originally part of the Free Church of Scotland, Chalmers was first established in 1847 by a faction of Presbyterians from St. Andrew’s who supported the Free Church. The first Chalmers building was constructed from 1849-51 on Earl Street, but in 1888 the current church was built and opened in 1890.
After the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, Chalmers became a United church and has remained so to this day. They also recently uncovered an André Bieler mosaic in the former church hall across the street, now owned by Queen’s, which they are very proud of. It’s a pretty nice piece, and I felt very smart-alecky discussing what the symbolism in it meant. (Taking a few courses in European medieval art will give you the ability to explain nearly any Christian symbol…)
Sydenham Street United Church
Sydenham Street United Church used to be Methodist, and the oldest part of the current structure dates to 1851. (Apparently, the land it’s on used to be a circus ground!) It was built by William Coverdale, one of Kingston’s most beloved architects; however the church underwent several alterations over the years including the addition of a steeple (1854) and the widening of the nave (1887).
It’s one of the big old Kingston churches. The congregation here helped begin four other churches in the Kingston area, was involved in numerous social and charity groups, and it was the home church of Rev. S.D. Chown, who was the General Superintendent of the Methodist Church from 1910-1925. By coincidence, a reading I did for my online history course this week included a less-than-flattering quote from Rev. Chown about protecting Canada’s “national life-blood” from nefarious foreign immigrants. Since I had just visited the church a few days earlier, I had a moment of, “Wait, is that…?” – and it was! See photographic evidence below:
But there’s other interesting stuff to check out in Sydenham Street United. Like for example, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came here in 1959:
Coming from a Catholic background, I think what Protestant churches lack in artwork they make up for in plaques, memorials, photographs, and other items. It seems to be a very common theme, and something I rarely notice in Catholic churches.
St. George’s Anglican Cathedral
I forgot to take a proper picture of the outside of this one, sorry! If Sydenham Street United is a big old Kingston church, St. George’s is A Big Old Kingston Church. It was established in 1792 on King Street across from Market Square, and has gone through several versions over the ensuing centuries, the latest being the reconstruction after the devastating 1899 fire.
Many figures important to Canadian history are connected with St. George’s. After Molly Brant settled in Kingston in 1783, she became a founding member of the church – the only woman among the fifty-four members. On 8 July 1792, Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe took the oaths of office on the steps of the old St. George’s, signalling the beginning of Ontario’s government. And in the second St. George’s (which forms part of the current building), Governor General Lord Sydenham had a temper tantrum at his first Sunday service in Kingston because he found the sermon deadly boring. He vowed never to return, but after his death in 1841 he was buried in a vault under the church, marked by this plaque:
(Also, Farley Mowat used to come here while he was stationed at Fort Frontenac during the Second World War!) St. George’s became a cathedral in 1862, and after the reconstruction from the fire of 1899, the rest is history… plus lots of cool windows and decorations:
Hope you enjoyed this tour through some of Kingston’s churches! Later in the summer I may get to some others, such as St. Andrew’s, St. Paul’s, or St. Mary’s. I would also really like to see inside little St. James’ on Queen’s campus, so watch out for that.
I literally used pamphlets I picked up at each church for information (except in the case of Sydenham Street United). However, here are the “history” webpages for each church: