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NO SEPARATE PEW AMONG US: Keith Burnett (left) as Rev. Thomas Hughes who founded Christ Church, Dresden in 1867, and Lee Highgate as his ancestor Aaron Highgate, a Christ Church congregant in the 1940s and 1950s.

What do a 1940s Scoutmaster and an1850s Underground Railroad conductor have in common? If you live in Dresden, the answer lies in a modest brick church, built in 1867, that sits in the heart of downtown. 

It is the second oldest surviving church in the community, built in 1867 by Rev. Thomas Hughes out of handmade bricks and timbers from raw materials on Hughes farm. Here, Hughes made a permanent home for his British Church and School Society’s mission to the formerly enslaved that he introduced to what was known as the Dawn Settlement in 1857.

The church, which has changed very little since the time it was built, served as a perfect backdrop for Christmas Spirit Walk held on December 7, 2023. It is also the connecting link between George Brooker, a Christ Church congregant in the 1940s and 1950s and Black Abolitionists who a century before shared Hughes’ vision of creating a church community in which there were no racial distinctions. 

That classic Christmas theme of “good will towards all men” provided the unifying theme running through the six historical stories represented by reenactors.

“It seemed fitting, in that we were trying, like Dickens, to stir people’s awareness of the true spirit of Christmas, that we should choose Christ Church as a setting,” says organizer Marie Carter, co-chair of the Dresden History Group. 

Supported by the congregation of Christ Church and a community group, Dresden Shines,  the Dresden History Group presented three 35-minute “Spirit walks” through the church to 75 75 people.

Two time periods were featured:  1867, the year the congregation first celebrated Christmas in its then new building; and 1947, the year the Anglican Scout Group left Christ Church to take up residence in its new hall as a non-denominational community Scouting and Guiding unit.

“These two time periods,” says Carter, “echo the theme of unity and inclusion that seems to have run through the entire history of Christ Church and which was based on the first minister, Rev. Thomas Hughes’ original vision that there should be ‘no separate pew among us’”. 

The English-born Hughes sought to create an integrated church and society at Dresden at a time of rising prejudice due to a large influx of formerly enslaved persons into the area.  His vision seems to have remained a guiding principle for later parishioners like 1940s Scoutmaster George Brooker and his wife Elizabeth, who similarly embraced an integrated vision for their Scouting and Guiding movement.

The Spirit Walk, which strung together vignettes of six historical figures from Christ Church’s past played by amateur and professional actors who volunteered for the roles, told  of the important links of  Christ Church to  figures of the William Still Underground Railroad, who called Christ Church their spiritual home in the 1850s and 1860s.

Many of those playing famous figures like J. B. and Mary Hollensworth, relatives of the famous Underground Railroad conductor William Whipper, had not previously known of Christ Church’s heritage. Rev. Josiah Henson (long known as the inspiration behind Harriet Beecher Stowe’s lead character in her landmark abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) is often the only person of  African descent people associate with Dresden, a community that grew out of the famed Dawn Settlement that Henson is often credited with founding.  Finding that the slavery to freedom narrative is not representative of every family’s background was a surprise many found instilled a new curiosity about Black Heritage. 

Community member Paul Robinson, who portrayed the Pennsylvania intellectual Parker T. Smith on the walk, felt pride in portraying the little known Black intellectual and  president of the famed Benneker Institute in Philadelphia, who worked briefly with Hughes to bring intellectual and spiritual uplift to formerly enslaved persons during a 10-month stay in Dresden.

Marie Carter, a local historian who has researched and written about Black History at Dresden for the past 20 years was pleased to write the script. 

“It’s always gratifying,” she said, “to watch people rediscover this lost history that shows a diverse community existed here that included Black pioneers who had the resources and agency to transform  society.” 

A handful of elite Black leaders were involved not only in Hughes’ church but in the community as a whole, where they created infrastructure needed by formerly enslaved. Some like J.B. Hollensworth (played by Keith McCorkle) and his third wife Mary were linked through marriage to one of the most prominent Underground Railroad conductors on the William Still Underground Railroad Network, William Whipper. 

Whipper himself was a major investor in creating Dresden businesses and institutions, including Christ Church, and his wife Harriett was a parishioner during the Civil War.  As supporters of Hughes’ mission,  Whipper, his family members and business associates supported a number of efforts that provided education for the formerly enslaved population at “Dawn” and championed civil rights efforts like desegregation of common schools. 

Lee Highgate, a local artist and professional actor, whose family has a long association with Christ Church, portrayed his ancestor, Aaron Highgate. That prominent educator from Pennsylvania taught at Rev. Thomas Hughes’ mission schools in Dresden and the surrounding townships.

Jackie Bernard, a program developer at Josiah Henson Museum, played Mary Smith-Hollensworth, an independent Black businesswoman, who was a major supporter of Hughes’ mission from the time of his arrival at Dresden in  1857.  The second floor of Mary’s grocery store was the original site of the mission’s school, which Hughes affectionately referred to as his “Upper Room School”.

Keith Burnett, a seasoned little theatre actor, played Rev. Thomas Hughes, the stalwart minister who tried in vain to attract white families to his congregation.  It was an idea that was not popular in Hughes’ time and ultimately only one white family besides his own attended Christ Church in Hughes’ lifetime. Yet, Hughes’ vision seems to have survived him. 

By 1947, George Brooker (played by Jeffrey Carter) and his wife Elizabeth, both Christ Church congregants, established their Scouting movement on much the same principles as Hughes at a time when Canadian society still openly practiced segregation in public and private spaces.

Indeed Ontario’s Fair Trades and Accommodations Practices Act  came about five years after the Brookers began their Scouting movement at Dresden. That law, which made it, for the first time, illegal to refuse service on the basis of race or creed,  was itself brought about through descendants of 1850s activists like Dennis Hill,  a member of Hughes’ church who first challenged segregation of common schools.

For Carter, the scriptwriter, the spirit walks were an important opportunity to share stories she has researched and written about for the past 20 years.  Popular entertaining activities with a Christmas theme attract audiences who might never seek out historical information in other ways, she says. But beyond this, she says, is the sheer joy of seeing individuals whose heritage is connected to the families who were part of Hughes’ congregation discover newfound pride in their ancestors and their achievements. 

Having an opportunity to highlight the history of churches in the community as places where faith was put into action in transforming society also excites Carter, who believes it’s a relevant insight for today’s congregations who are searching for ways to make religion “relevant” to society today. 

“You can see in these histories”, says Carter, “that people transformed the world through their living out of the Gospels, sometimes despite great personal peril.” 

 The stories of Hughes’ parishioners, she believes, provide inspirational examples and instill pride in the history of the church. 

“Churches get a lot of bad press these days, but these stories remind us that the church, though not perfect, has made some incredible contributions to the transformation of society.  It’s shaped people in ways that have made our world more egalitarian and humane.  And that’s something to celebrate, especially during this season when people are more receptive to the central messages of goodwill inherent in the Christmas story.”

Submitted by Christ Church Dresden and Marie Carter, local historian.