The Early Years
Church is a word with two meanings: a group of believers and a building where believers meet to worship. The word church usually means a parish church today, and in this guide we will use the word church to mean the building. Christianity was introduced into Britain during the Roman period, and there were probably well-established Christian communities before the end of the second century CE. Holy Trinity Church Thornhill follows the practices and traditions that have come to us from the Anglican Church in England.
By the 1830’s Thornhill had become a thriving pioneer community. Among the many businesses were four grist mills, three saw mills, four tanneries, a brickyard, two distilleries, seven taverns and several stores. It was during this bustle of activity that the church was constructed.
Trinity Church, as it was formerly known, is the oldest original church building still in use in the Diocese. Begun in 1829 and completed in the early summer of 1830, it fulfilled the long felt need of Anglicans in the district for a church of their own. Prior to that they had held services in private homes, and along with other religious denominations had shared the Cober schoolhouse on the site of Langstaff School on Yonge Street at Uplands Avenue. Occasionally parishioners traveled down Yonge Street in order to attend special services at St. John’s Church in York Mills.
In 1828 Thornhill was one of several places selected by Archdeacon Strachan and Bishop Stewart to receive the ministrations of professors of theology and divinity students who were sent here to conduct regular services. Erection of a church building soon became necessary. The two laymen chiefly responsible for the undertaking were William Parsons and his brother-in-law Benjamin Thorne, both who had come to this area from England, and who had both been successful in business. They donated the property for the church and the burial ground. Benjamin Thorne petitioned the government for a post office, and it was after him that Thornhill received its name.
The names of original members of the parish listed in old parish records, include Captain John Arnold, a United Empire Loyalist who settled in Thornhill in about 1800, Sutton Frizzell, who bought property at what is now the north-east corner of Yonge and John Streets in 1810, John Langstaff, who rode horseback from Amboy, New Jersey, in 1808, and became the first teacher in the log schoolhouse which was the forerunner to Langstaff School, and Henry Richards, grandson of Jeremiah Atkinson, builder of the first mill in the hollow on Yonge Street. Mr. Richards was the sexton of Trinity Church for more than 40 years, and his son, Henry, also held that position.
The first wedding to take place in Trinity Church was probably that of Mary Sophia Gapper to Captain Edmund O’Brien, a half pay officer in the British Army, on May 13, 1830. Because the vestry book was lost in a fire, many details of the first 30 years of Trinity Church are missing. However, Mary Sophia Gapper O’Brien left interesting descriptions of early days in the Thornhill area between 1828-1832 in her writings. Mary O’Brien’s original diary is located in the Archives of Ontario, and contains a number of references to the church. An edited copy of this treasured journal is held in the Archives at Holy Trinity Church. When Trinity Church was dedicated on February 28th, 1830, Mary O’Brien wrote, “We had service in the morning in our church. Dr. Strachan came out expressly to officiate. He read for the first lesson the Dedication of the Temple, and preached for an hour and a half, a sermon which, if not perfect as a composition, was so good in matter and feeling that most of the party left the church with most charitable feelings towards the preacher and, it is to be hoped, further benefit. It happened that the Methodist preacher who was expected at a neighbouring place came late, and his congregation agreed to join. Thus we had a very numerous assembly but I have not heard how they were affected. At least the visiting congregation had to sit through a sermon which was equally long as those to which they were accustomed in their own meetings”.
The Rev. George Mortimer, who had come from London, England, and had earned an MA at Cambridge University, was the first full time rector. He followed the Rev. Isaac Fidler, who had stayed only a few months, and then returned to England. The Rev. Mortimer, a frail man, was very much respected and liked in the village, and he made a point of calling on every family. Sadly, and indicative of the risks faced by the early settlers, the Rev. Mortimer died following an accident while being driven in a horse-drawn vehicle down Yonge Street, and when the horse took fright, this well respected spiritual leader was thrown against a tree trunk and died shortly after.
The 15 years after the building of the church were years of prosperity and expansion in Upper Canada. Within a decade, the congregation had grown to such an extent that some change became necessary to accommodate the large numbers attending services. In 1840, with the addition of an aisle to each side of the church, the width was increased to forty-eight feet, and the seating capacity was almost doubled.
In 1866 the old box pews were lowered, and benches for kneeling were added. In 1886 the first stained glass window appeared in the chancel in the west wall above the altar as a memorial to Mr. and Mrs. William Parsons. During this period the church had used the custom of pew rents to augment income. In the Holy Trinity Church Archives there is a pew rent document dated 1856-57. In 1893-94, however, this custom was discontinued when the vestry decided to use an envelope system. In 1910 the old box pews were removed from the church, and sold to Trench Carriage Works in Richmond Hill for use in the manufacture of cutters, and a new set of pews was bought from Valley City Seating Company at a cost of $470.00. Oil lamps were used for lighting.
In 1914 the present altar, a memorial to Joseph Robinson and his family, replaced the original altar that had been made from packing cases. A new pulpit replaced the old high pulpit which had formerly stood on the north side of the church near the vestry door, and which had been reached by several steps. A third improvement in that year was the installation of electric lights, a gift from Dr. L.G. Langstaff.
More Recent History And The Move To A New Location
1918 was a significant year with the end of World War I. Before two new memorial stained glass windows could be installed, it was necessary to do considerable restoration work on the windowsills and on the foundation of the building. Yonge Street was also becoming very busy, and the safety of parishioners exiting the church was a significant concern. By 1946 there was an obvious need for even further restoration work. It was during this year that the Parish Council, seeing the need in the near future for increased accommodation, being concerned about personal safety and being faced with a major expenditure for repairs, made an effort to assess the situation and to make plans for the future of Trinity Church. Already there were signs of a post-war expansion moving northward from Toronto, with three new subdivisions planned or begun in Thornhill itself. Farsighted laymen on the Parish Council, concerned by the speed with which available lots in Thornhill were being bought up, foresaw that a new location was needed.
At the Vestry meeting in 1947 a startling suggestion was made to the congregation to purchase a quieter and more suitable site in Thornhill. Such a property was available on Brooke Street thanks to the kindness of Dr. Lorne Pierce and the co-operation of Mr. Thoreau MacDonald. Though it was felt that it would probably be ten years before any final decision needed to be made about building a new church, wisdom dictated that the purchase should be made at once. The vestry agreed, and a site with three hundred feet of frontage was purchased from Dr. Pierce, with the assistance of the Church Extension Committee of the Diocese. So quickly did conditions change that within only two years it was realized that a decision would have to be made soon. After several vestry meetings, the decision was made to move the church building to the new site, to renovate it, and to enlarge it.
On Wednesday, June 7th, 1950, at 6:45 p.m. a sad service took place in the church in the presence of the Rector, the wardens, G. Billerman and S.S. Tobias, and the lay delegate to Synod, Harvey Shepherd. The following, with the signatures of Bishop Beverley and the above officers, is the entry in the Service Register. “Service for the removal of Sentence of Consecration on the occasion of the removal of Trinity Church, and its building on a new site on Brooke Street.”
The Albert Clark Construction Company of Weston then began the task of moving the church.
W. Sydney Kertland, architect, and great-grandson of William Parsons, and himself a member of the parish, drew the plans and undertook the supervision of the task. The work was financed by the sale of Lawrence Memorial Hall, by contributions from the congregation, and by placing a mortgage on the rectory. Albert Clark Construction Company of Weston then began the task of moving the church, and Trinity Church was dismantled board-by-board, and re-erected on its present site. The only changes were the addition of a new chancel, which provides greater width in the sanctuary, and the addition of two small windows above the altar which are the parish memorials to members who served in the two world wars, five of whom made the supreme sacrifice. During the process of moving, the balcony, which had been boarded up for great many years, was re-opened. In the early days, like many English parish churches of that period, it had been the gallery for the choir. Trinity Church, just as it still stands today, was re-dedicated by Bishop Beverley on May 22nd, 1951.
In its new location on Brooke Street, Holy Trinity Church as it was renamed, has continued to thrive, and has been a welcoming place of worship and service to many during the past years. The Rev. Canon Reginald Howden, followed by the Rev. Bob Grisdale, the Rev. Dr. Linda Nicholls, and the Rev. Canon Greg Physick, along with a number of fine associate ministers and parish nurses, have all given exceptional spiritual leadership. We are especially grateful to our church secretary, to the wardens and all the volunteers who have so generously given of their time and talents.
While searching for a new incumbent in the year 2010-2011, the church was blessed to welcome Bishop William Hockin, newly retired Bishop of the Diocese of Fredericton and then The Most Rev. Terence Finlay, as our interim priests in charge. The new parish hall has been well used for church bazaars, ACW potluck suppers, rummage sales, Footlights Club presentations, special events, coffee hours and as a rental facility.
An elevator was added in recent years to assist those who find the stairway a challenge, and to make sure that our church is accessible to all. Increased financial support for the church has been welcomed through renting the parish hall to a weekly art group and various other community groups. A Korean Church also rents the sanctuary on a weekly basis, and Thornhill Nursery and Kindergarten uses the church basement facilities. We welcome such community interests and appreciate their financial support.
Wonderful celebrations were held to commemorate significant anniversaries, including the 135th, 140th, 150th, 175th and 180th, with memorable teas, dinners, short skits, plays and gatherings, sometimes in pioneer dress. These events were well attended, and continue to provide happy memories. On February 28, 2010 we celebrated 180 years of worship and service in Thornhill. It is with much happiness and thanksgiving that we feel blessed to be able to worship in such a beautiful and historic church.
In August, 2011, we welcomed our new rector, the Canon Stephen Fields. Like many parts of the Greater Toronto Area, our church faces the challenges of a rapidly changing community and the need to encourage younger people to feel welcome in our church. With the leadership of Canon Stephen, our prayers, energy and enthusiasm, it is with hope and optimism that we look forward to seeing Holy Trinity Church continue in the future as a thriving and welcoming place of worship and service in Thornhill.