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Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Niagaras History Unveiled: St. Andrews Presbyterian Church

One of the most striking buildings in Niagara-on- the-Lake is St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Simcoe Street between Gage and Centre Streets.

It was the first church built NOTL, constructed in 1794 under the watchful eye of Rev. John Dun, a missionary from Albany, New York. 

Typical of Presbyterian congregations settling into a new community, the church was built first, then the school and then the hospital.

The original church building was burned to the ground by the occupying American forces in August of 1813, three months before the entire town was razed. The Americans had been very suspicious of the church steeple being used to send signals to the British Army, which had been forced to leave the town during the American invasion in May of 1813.

For the next 18 years, the Presbyterian congregation, which put great emphasis on equal education for all people, held services in a school house on the north corner of the property.

The school house, built in 1802, was a simple two-storey wooden building. The upstairs room was used as a school for freed or runaway slave children for several decades, while the lower rooms were used as the main school rooms for the children of the congregation.

In later years the building became a meeting place known as the Kirk House and was for a time occupied by the church’s sexton (caretaker). 

The school house was taken down in 1950 and only the stone foundation can be seen today.

An excerpt that can be found in the Special Collections room of the St. Catharine’s Centennial Library documents one woman’s account of her school days in the upstair classroom. 

“I went to a black man upstairs in the school house of the Scotch church. The room was full, full of children. The benches were slabs of the flat side up and the back of the trees down, with round sticks put in slanting for legs. The children all studied aloud and the one that made the most noise was the head scholar in those days.”

The new church we see today was constructed in 1831, on the same site as the first church. It is a wonderful example of Greek revival architecture with the design based on the Temple of Theseus in Athens, Greece. 

Facing onto Simcoe Street there are six Doric columns and a pediment (triangular gable over a portico) at the front of the church. Above the central door is the tympanum (semi-circular decorative wall surface) that has a gilt sun-burst design.

The steeple is octagonal and points to the skies over the front of the church.

In the 1800s, there was a seven-foot weathervane of archangel Gabriel attached to the very top of the steeple — technically seven-foot-five tall and two feet wide.

On April 18, 1855 at 6:45 a.m., a ferocious hurricane struck the town and Gabriel flew away. 

It was later found in a farmer’s field and lay hidden away in a barn for over 40 years before it was donated to the NOTL Museum. You can see the weathervane today in the museum as it is part of the permanent display in the gallery.

Saint Andrew’s interior has been meticulously preserved to its original state with a high pulpit (one of the few in Canada) and three types of pews, box, slip and table.

On Communion Sundays the pews have long pine tables placed before them and are covered with a fine linen cloth. The silver communion service in use today is the original one used from 1831.

The church itself can seat up to 600 people using the main floor and the colonial style gallery on three sides of the church.

In the early years of the church history pews were purchased by the families. The records show the cost of a pew in 1831 was from eight to 25 pounds plus an additional cost of two to three pounds for annual “ground rent.”

Ground rent was paid yearly to the church for ongoing costs of maintaining the property.

An unusual feature of St. Andrew’s is the location of the pulpit — most pulpits are at the front of the church opposite the entry doors which are at the back of the church, while the pulpit at St. Andrews is located at the back of the church with the entry doors on each side.  

One can only imagine the embarrassment of being late — everyone would see you trying to sneak in.

The graveyard at St. Andrews came into use in the 1830s.

“Miss” Janet Carnochan, a renowned NOTL historian, noted that although the church had been established even before St. Mark’s Anglican Church, there were no burials in St. Andrews until March of 1833. 

A man named John Crooks, who died at the age of 36, was the first person to be buried in the graveyard of St. Andrews.

As you walk through the graveyard you will notice there are no ornate stones with crosses and religious symbols that you see in St. Vincent de Paul, nor are there lengthy verses or warnings to do better in life such as on the stones in St. Mark’s graveyard.

The Scots who established St. Andrews kept their faith simple and plain. A verse from the Bible, a line from a hymn or hope for the resurrection is the most you will find.

There are several headstones that indicate a military grave. These stones are among the few that do provide more information about the life of the person with rank and regiment listed on the stone. 

Amongst the military graves are are references to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Peninsular War (fought in Spain and Portugal from 1808 to 1812) and even the American Civil War.

One of the more notable people to be buried in St. Andrew’s graveyard is Janet Carnochan (mentioned above), who founded the Niagara Historical Museum. 

Carnochan was a recognized author, having written articles for several newspapers and published many books. Carnochan’s involvement in the community not only showed her desire to preserve the history of the town but to also played a big factor in encouraging the study of Canadian literature and history.

This year, on September 21, 22 and 28, 29, the Niagara Historical Society and Museum will host its annual Stroll Through History. 

The “Graveyard Shift” under the direction of Barbara Worthy will be telling the stories of the folks who once lived in NOTL and are now residing in St. Andrew’s graveyard.

More information can be obtained at the 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 Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.

Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Denise is a regular Niagara Now contributor. Her full profile can be found here.

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