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Sunday, January 29, 2023
Niagara’s History Unveiled: The churches of Virgil

As towns develop and grow in history, the need for places of worship inevitably become a priority. Virgil was no different.

The town never grew as substantially as Old Town or St. Davids, but the citizens were no less devoted to improving their community.

The first church services were often held in someone’s home or barn until land and money were found to build a church.

The first recorded gathering of people was in the home of George Lawrence, who was a Methodist and one of the village founders. 

Methodism arrived in the Niagara region in the late 1780s. A Loyalist from Carolina, Maj. George Neal, arrived in Upper Canada after the American Revolution and started holding “class meetings” in St. Davids and later in Virgil.

When Lawrence converted to Methodism, he became a class leader for the Virgil congregation. Two other prominent men in the community, Albert Andrews and Robert Warren, were strong supporters of the church, both serving in the Sunday school and as stewards. Warren was involved with the church for over 60 years.

A meeting house was built in 1840 and a graveyard was established on land donated by George Lawrence.

The meeting house, although simply designed, had many interesting features. Like St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Niagara, the interior of the church had a high pulpit and a gallery on three sides. To maintain the church and full-time minister the church raised funds through the rental of pews.

It was quite the system and one can clearly see that the more you were willing to pay, the better the position you had in the church. For $8 a year you could rent one of the six pews on either side of the pulpit. For $6 a year you could have one of the first 16 pews in front of the pulpit. It seems the farther out of sight you got, the lower the fees were. It cost $5 for the four pews on the right and left side, and under the gallery, $4 for the six pews in the centre under the gallery – and all the rest were free.

The first Methodist chapel was torn down to make way for a new chapel that was built in 1904 near the Lawrenceville Restaurant. After the union of three churches, Presbyterian, Methodists and Congregationists in 1925, the Methodist Church in Virgil was rebranded to Virgil United Church.

In 1965, the congregation of that church joined the congregation of Grace United Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The amalgamation included not just the people but also many artifacts from the Virgil church building. Two stain glass windows, some chairs and the pulpit were all installed in Grace United.

The church building in Virgil was eventually sold and later demolished. The bricks from the building were used by the Pumphouse in NOTL.

There is still a graveyard from the original Methodist meeting house. George Lawrence is buried there along with many other familiar names such as Anderson, Belvidere, Caughell, Haines and Stevens, to name a few.

A plaque was erected in the graveyard and it gives a brief history of the founding of the Methodist church. The cemetery is no longer in use and is maintained by the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Another church community also developed in the early days of Virgil. The Baptist community started in 1829 under the guidance of Rev. John Oakley. He was a storekeeper for the military from 1814, until he retired 10 years later to become a school teacher and preacher. Oakley first started a Sunday school in Virgil and by 1829 he had the money to build a small church on the west side of town.

In 1841, under the leadership of Mr. Dorland (a retired school teacher), a larger Baptist church was built in Virgil on the west side of Four Mile Creek and in front of the Baptist cemetery. The first meeting in the new church was held on August 12, 1841. It is unfortunate that the early records for this congregation were lost.

As happens in many small villages, by 1937 the Baptist church community had dwindled and the church was closed. It was later used as a meeting house for the Mennonite Brethren for a brief period and then sold.

In 1991, the Baptist Church was lost in a very devious manner. The land and building were owned by Tom Quinn, owner of the Dew Drop Inn. Without a town permit, he had the church demolished over one weekend. The community was in an uproar, but nothing could be done to undo the damage. Quinn was fined $100 for his act of vandalism to a historic property.

Several more congregations started up in the community of Virgil, such as the Ukrainian and Russian Baptists who arrived in the area from the Canadian prairies in the 1930s, during what was called the Dust Bowl Disaster.

At first, this group worshipped with the Baptists in Virgil, however a splinter group broke away and started an Evangelical congregation. Their church is still standing on Niagara Stone Road and is now a private residence.

The Presbyterian Church made a brief appearance in Virgil. The church was on or near where the old Angelo’s barbershop was. However, there was a great controversy over who actually owned the land. By the 1880s, the congregation disbanded with many families joining St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in NOTL.

St. John’s Anglican Church was established in 1896. The building was erected on land donated by Jacob Field and located on Niagara Stone Road. It is a simple rectangular brick building with a steep gabled roof. There are three arched windows at the front with one circular stained glass window above them. The front door is off to the side of the building. But like other small communities, the congregation dwindled and could no longer support the church building.

In 1996, the church building and land were sold to a commercial group and the building was used for many purposes, such as arts and crafts sales, and later an antique store.

Then, in 2012, the building was converted into   Silversmith Brewery. A glass addition was added to the side where today one can see today the brewing process.

Chris Pontsioen and Matt Swan preserved much of the heritage of the building. In 2014, the Peter J. Stokes heritage commendation committee acknowledged their work, stating: “This is an excellent example of the adaptive reuse of a later 19th-century Gothic Revival church.” Today you can still see the stained glass windows and the old wooden beams supporting the gabled roof.

By the 1930s, the Mennonites were arriving in Virgil. Their arrival made a great impact on the community. Houses, barns, businesses, schools and churches all were established. This was a huge, positive change for the town.

* Many thanks to David Hemmings for his permission to tell stories from his book “The Cross Roads, Fortune Favours the Strong,” available at the Niagara Historical Society and Museum.


To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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