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Dec. 15, 2019 | Sunday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: St. Mark’s a pivotal part of community
St. Mark's Anglican Church on Byron Street. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/Niagara Now)

One of the prettiest churches in Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Mark’s Anglican Church, sits nestled in a delightful park-like setting on Byron Street.

The first congregation was formed in 1792, but did not start to build the church until 1804 and it was completed by 1809. The first structure, built of sandstone, was a basic rectangular building, with four windows on each side and a door at one end.

Inside was a simple design of box pews for the congregation to rent or even purchase. The closer to the front, or ones with heaters, were the most costly. If a box was purchased, the “real estate” was often passed down through several generations.

The parishioners of St. Mark’s, however, did not have use of their church for long when war broke out in 1812.

British military took over the church building to use it as a field hospital. Then in 1813, when the American forces occupied the town, the church was used as a barracks and commissary. Their disregard for the church and graveyard was evident when trenches were dug through the cemetery using headstones as support walls.

Another act of desecration was when a grave marker, that of Charles Morrison, was taken into the church and used as a chopping block for the butchers in the commissary. To this day you can still see chopping marks on his stone.

When the Americans retreated from Niagara-on-the-Lake on Dec. 10, 1813, they set fire to the town; St. Mark’s was also set ablaze. The roof and interior were damaged but those sandstone walls remained strong.

By 1822, the parishioners were financially able to rebuild the church. The design remained the same. Then in 1842-43 the church was enlarged adding the transepts, gothic revival altar and chancel. A bell was purchased by public subscription to be used not only for a call to worship but to sound the alarm should the Americans decide to invade again.

The graveyard was actually in use before the church was built. It was the general gravesite for all denominations. The oldest gravestone in the cemetery is that of Elizabeth Kerr who died Jan. 21, 1794. She was the daughter of Molly Brant, who was the sister to Chief Joseph Brant, leader of the Mohawks. Kerr had married Dr. Robert Kerr, one of the two doctors when the town was first settled.

It was during this time, when the footings were being dug that a gravestone was unearthed, that of Lenard Planck. He had fought with Butlers Rangers and had been wounded in the battle of Upper Sandusky. He died in 1782 in a military hospital that was located just east of the church. No human remains were found, so a mystery surrounds as to where this young man is actually buried. It was decided to embed his gravestone in an interior wall of the church. It can be seen there to this day.

Further alterations were made in 1892 when the box pews were removed and simple bench seating was installed. The wood from the walls that encased all the boxes was used as wainscoting on the interior walls of the church.

To the keen eye, in older pictures of the church, can be seen pinnacles on the bell tower; they were removed in the 1950s. The bell tower itself has evolved from just one bell to 19! The first bell was replaced with six bells in 1877. Then, in 1917, three more bells were added. By 2007 another nine bells were added to the repertoire. The last bell, Brock’s Bell, was added in 2012 to commemorate the War of 1812.

Over the years, stained glass windows were donated, including the elaborate window above the altar. It is considered the oldest stained glass window in the province, having been installed in 1840.

Rev. Robert Addison was the first clergyman of the church. His service in Upper Canada was from 1792 to 1829. During the occupation of the town by the American forces in 1813, Addison was permitted to stay but could not live in the town. He was put under house arrest in his home, which was three miles out of town. He was permitted to conduct services in the general hospital that was located on The Commons.

Addison was very particular when it came to record-keeping. If a child was baptized, not only did he record the date and name of the child as well as parents, but quite often added extra information such as occupations and other family members. The Niagara Historical Society & Museum are ever grateful for his detailed records.

Addison died in 1828 and is buried in St. Mark’s by the north transept. There is a lovely memorial plaque in his honour on the side of the church, above where he is buried.

Another clergyman who needs to be mentioned is Rev. William McMurray, third rector of St. Mark’s. He insisted the church provide him with a parsonage. So the beautiful home, known as the Tuscan Villa, was built in 1858. The bricks for the home were from Britain. They came here as ship’s ballast and were purchased from the estate of the late Samuel Zimmerman, who had run a steam ship company. The home has been used since by the clergy of St. Mark’s.

Between the church and the parsonage is Addison Hall. Built in 1866, it was purposed as a Sunday school, meeting room and library. The library is considered to have some of the oldest books in the province, one dating back to 1548. Rev. Addison brought his collection of over 1,500 books with him from England. On the death of his wife, the family kept some of the books and bequeathed the remaining 1,300 to the church.

In 1966, the wings to Addison Hall were added, which included washrooms, a kitchen, offices and side rooms. Where windows had once been, doorways now led from the main hall into smaller rooms. The hall is now used for Sunday school, meetings, rehearsal hall, lecture hall and a learning centre.

St. Mark’s Anglican Church has been a pivotal part of the community and continues so to this day. Weddings, baptisms and funerals aside, the church is well-known for its music.

The church is home to three organs, one grand piano and a harpsichord. The choir has several professional musicians who elevate the other members of the choir to a higher standard. The choir is always a pleasure to listen to and one soon appreciates the amount of time the members put into choir practice.

As well, St. Mark’s regularly is used by the Music Niagara and Bravo Niagara! festivals. This week, the church is host to David Scott Curry, an internationally acclaimed opera singer. Curry recently moved back to Ontario and is pleased to bring his talent to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

St. Mark’s Anglican Church has been the heart of this community for over 200 years. Through wars, economic hardships and the successful years of harvests, the church has always stood strong.

For more information on the church’s upcoming events, email stmarks@cogeco.ca or call 905-933-4499.

More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at: www.niagaranow.com

 

Correction: Last week’s story by Linda Fritz about the A La Gallerie house said the house was completely rebuilt after a fire. In fact, the house was not entirely destroyed by the fire, and some of the original house remains.

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