By Rev. Patricia Allison
Our Diocese has some magnificent buildings that we are all likely to have seen at some point, but it also has some hidden gems that hide away in the countryside which are only ever known to a few.
One such is a beautiful yellow-brick church, standing beside a peaceful, lovingly-kept cemetery, surrounded by cornfields and maple bush, on Thirteen Mile Rd. northwest of Ilderton. This is St. George’s Middlesex Centre (formerly London Township), where I am a member.
We are newcomers, since we joined the congregation only 35 years ago, and this parish, which celebrates its 180th anniversary next year, is still the home parish of the original founding families. Those families held ‘unofficial’ services together from the day they first settled here, years before they were able to build a church. The first ‘official’ service, with clergy, was duly recorded in 1822, when the Rev. Stewart travelled out from London. He recorded a large congregation, and noted in his records that some families had walked as much as 16 miles to attend.
The original families, mostly from Cumberland and Northumberland, were died-in-the-wool Tories and stalwarts of the Church of England, and they continued to be so in their new land. They were farmers and stockmen, and had moved to Canada to provide better opportunities for their large families. In addition to their farming skills, these settlers were well-educated, and also extremely dedicated and capable musicians.
The land they settled on, northwest of London, provided plenty of timber and good soil, as well as abundant fresh water. As they worked on taming the wilderness and establishing their farms, they set aside a corner on which they intended to build a church, with the land around it designated as their graveyard, and they began burying their dead there before the place of worship was built.
We sometimes jokingly refer to the church as St. George’s-in-the-Cornfields, but it might be more accurate to refer to it as St. George’s-by-the-Spring. Very close to the present church, there is a freshwater spring bubbling up through the ground, and people still come to collect its sweet-tasting water. Unfortunately, thanks to a myriad health regulation requirements, that delicious spring water no longer tastes the same from the taps inside the building!
The presence of the spring had an unanticipated benefit in later years as well. Because the water level in the ground is very high, the church never had a basement, which meant that, instead of the typical low-ceilinged, tiny parish hall in the basement, accessed by steep stairs, the St. George’s parish hall has always been above ground. The first small hall was attached to the church some years after it was built, and couple of decades ago it was extensively enlarged. Unlike most older churches, the St. George’s parish hall is high-ceilinged, bright, spacious, airy, and completely accessible.
One of the most significant features in the life of St. George’s has always been its music, and a long line of fine musicians have shared their skill in worship. Robert Robson, a son of one of the founding families, is especially remembered for leading the church choir to victory in a major competition, thereby winning the very first organ for St. George’s. Others of his family followed him as organists and choir leaders, and, for all these years the church has never been without Robson musicians!
Another gifted musician fondly remembered at the church was Montgomery Charlton. As well as performing, Montgomery made beautiful violins, one of which his daughter, the exceptionally talented Eleanor, played in the London symphony. Eleanor and her brother Elgin carried on the tradition of music, in the church and also as popular performers in the community. Sunday morning worship was accompanied every week for many years by a small orchestra, (anchored by two Charltons and a Robson!) and the musicians also played individually for special services. I’m not the only old-timer who fondly remembers hearing Eleanor Charlton play O Holy Night on Christmas Eve, and The Holy City on Easter morning.
The tradition of outstanding musicians has continued. In recent years the amazing Angus Sinclair was organist and choir master, and under his leadership the tiny but mighty church choir flourished to new levels of skill and accomplishment. His work was carried on more than ably by Alexander Cann, Scott Tucker, Carol McFadden, and our present Music Director, Sarah Bowker.
The first church building, which opened in 1841, was a mission church, in which the clergy were paid by missionary societies in England, but by 1860 the congregation was secure enough to become completely self-supporting. The original building was replaced by the current building just a few years later. The second phase of that building was undertaken in 1895, when it was extended to accommodate a larger congregation and choir.
The latest renovation to the building, reflecting changes in worship style, happened a few years ago, when the choir pews were moved out of the chancel, enlarging the space around the altar. A few years before that, in celebration of the 150th anniversary, all of the remaining plain windows were replaced with beautiful stained glass, so that every window, even the one hidden away in the sacristy, has two stories to tell – one from the life of the Christian faith and one from the life of this specific community of faith. Thus, it is that every inch of this building holds memories that reach back to previous generations and the faithfulness of all those who went before.
Of course, as with all such gems, the beauty of the grounds and the significance of the building, with its memorials and memories, would be nothing without the strength and faithfulness of the existing community. Many of the faithful at St. George’s are descendants of the original settlers, and many of them still farm those original homesteads. These days there are also newcomers, many of them retirees moving to the country. Two hundred years ago the trip to London was long and arduous, but the city has gradually spread out towards us. Ilderton and Denfield are now largely dormitory communities, and the ease of access to London means that many people also commute back to the city to go to church. But that works both ways: quite a few of our congregation have moved to live in London but commute back for church!
Ministry in a church like this is very different from ministry in a city church. Surrounded as we are by fields, we must look further than our immediate vicinity to find need. Furthermore, being a small congregation, our financial resources are limited, but we are unusually rich in talented, skilled and energetic people. As a congregation, and as individuals and small groups, we support the closest Food Bank in a variety of ways, including the preparation of frozen meals. We have a team that works at St. John’s in the city, preparing and serving Saturday night meals three or four times a year. For the last couple of years, we have prepared Christmas gift bags for the Saturday night clientele.
In recent years we have offered our parish hall as a retreat centre. The quiet location is perfect for groups who need to be away from the city, or from their places of work, for a period of reflection and contemplation. We provide catering to make the day carefree – and we have a reputation for outstanding baking and homemade soups! Until the pandemic closed us all down, we had a small number of groups who came to us annually for retreats. We have even, on request, extended our catering services to local groups like the Ilderton Legion (to which I am Chaplain) and even to a particularly special 50th anniversary. An unusual ministry perhaps, but one that has been much appreciated in the wider community.
St. George’s is very precious to us, as a place of worship, a base for our ministries, and a supportive community of faithful Christians. Its tradition of musically-rich worship and wide-reaching ministry, even though much of it is temporarily suspended, is what keeps us all going. And I know it isn’t the only hidden gem in the Diocese: these thriving little congregations, with their long memories and rich histories are the very backbone of our church.
Rev. Patricia Allison serves as the chaplain to the ACW.