Researched and written by Shirley Geigen Miller
Chapter III - Construction of St. Anne's
Soon after land was purchased in 1853 (when weather permitted, of course), the community of Hall’s Mills began the long, slow process of building their church. According to Grace Bainard in The Story of St. Anne’s, the cobblestone structure was not completed until 1855.
Stones were gathered by hand from surrounding fields, the mortar mixed by hand, and heavy materials had to be hauled to the site by horses or oxen. These things took time. Plus, the volunteers had their own farms and businesses to run, at the same time.
As work progressed, completion of the church was hampered by a shortage of funds. But financial problems developed later, and one can suppose that, in the beginning, the Anglican community set out with enthusiasm and high hopes, to build their house of worship.
Robert Flint, who had already built several stone buildings in the area, was engaged as stonemason. He was the obvious choice as builder of St. Anne’s. Besides being a longstanding member of the community and a talented, experienced builder, Flint was also a member of the Church of England. He brought to the church building, as with his other structures, a distinctive style – an adaptation of a building tradition he had known in England, his former homeland. In England, the tradition was to use flint for the stone. In Hall’s Mills, Flint took the materials at hand, provided by nature, and created buildings that are now considered works of art.
“The majority of the original church would have been made from cobblestones,” says Nancy Zwart Tausky, an architectural historical consultant, living in London. Tausky has studied all the surviving Flint buildings and is highly respected for her expertise.
When his choice of cobblestone was not available, Flint would have used a fieldstone in its place, she continues. Thick applications of lime mortar (softer than modern mortar), were used to hold the stones together.
Cobblestones are naturally rounded stones, typically found in rivers. The stones are smoothed and rounded, over time, by the movement of the water.
The question has been posed as to how the church could have been made from cobblestones when the stones for St. Anne’s were plucked from nearby fields. Wouldn’t that make them fieldstones?
The answer is no, not in this case.
“River stones can be found far away” from the banks of a river, Tausky explains. Over the centuries, a river changes course, leaving cobblestones behind on dry land. And that is what occurred with the Thames River in this vicinity. Cobblestones, in a variety of colours, were plentiful in the fields of Hall’s Mills, 165 years ago.
Having been moulded by flowing river water for hundreds of years, the stones were chosen to form the original walls of St. Anne’s Church – a fine tribute to God’s creation.
In 2019, although some original stonework still stands, the exterior walls of the church are mostly fieldstone, a result of renovations, additions, and many repairs.
Tausky thinks Flint would have done most of the original stonework himself. Volunteers probably helped by gathering stones, providing wood and other materials, and possibly doing woodwork.
By May 1854, however, work on the uncompleted church seems to have come to a standstill. A letter written at the time by Hannah Flint (the stonemason’s wife), provides descriptions, insights and opinions on the situation. The letter was later held by John Millerson, a descendant of the Flints, who gave permission for the letter to be quoted in this history.
Writing to her son Pirney, on May 30, 1854, Hannah does not mince words about the stalled construction.
“Your Father built a very pretty English Church last Summer in this place. It’s built with gothic windows and a Porch but it stands in a wrong site close to the school house,” she writes. “John Sims & Lackey and your Father they were four months putting up the walls. [Still] it is not finish’d for the want of funds. If there is a show come along or any other foolishness, they can all find money & go by waggon loads … but to God that gives them all, [they] can spare nothing.” Furthermore, “old Eakins would not let them have stone altho’ he had so many that he could not cultivate his land…”
Hannah is clearly exasperated with what she sees as a lack of cooperation and assistance in the community. “I wish I was able and I would finish it,” she claims stoutly. Nevertheless her husband, the builder, seems to have been patient in the face of obstacles and delays.
“Your Father worked faithfull 4 months … and I never heard him grumble,” she continues, “but only the walls are up and windows and doors this spring.”
Elsewhere in the letter, Hannah mentions that Robert is now 70 years old and “getting too aged” to look after the horses in winter. Yet he continued to put up buildings, one of them being St. Anne’s Church.
The Flints had already survived worse troubles in their lives, as their story illustrates.
The Flints’ Story
A native of England, Robert Flint had been a landlord and builder in Norfolk, and then the owner of a fishing smack in Suffolk, before he and his family decided to emigrate to North America in the early 1830’s. Just before leaving England, Robert was robbed. Undeterred, and possibly counting on better fortunes in the New World, the Flints set off on their long ocean voyage anyway, landing in New York.
Robert seems to have been intent on providing for his family as quickly as possible. He left them in New York City while he went upstate to Pottsville to earn some money. When her husband did not return as soon as expected, Hannah “became anxious, made inquiries, and heard that [Robert] had died of cholera.” (Goodspeed) Soon afterwards, she packed herself and the children back to England.
Then “three days after Mrs. Flint had started back to England, Mr. Flint [alive and well] returned to New York and found his family gone.” (Goodspeed)
It sounds like a nightmare come true.
Robert, however, was no quitter. He made his way to Upper Canada, settled in the village of Westminster (now Byron), and later sent to England for his family to join him. The Flints were reunited in Westminster in 1836.
(Robert Flint, incidently, arrived in the village around the same time as Cyrenius Hall.)
Robert now had his wife, Hannah, with him, as well as their four children – son Robert, age 20, George, 18, Mary, 15, and Pirney, 11. Being together again, the Flints were ready to put down roots.
In 1838, Robert bought 61 acres along the Thames River, east of the village proper, and built a cobblestone cottage there as his family home. Some years later, he also built a stone house for son Pirney, on the property. Today, both cottages stand in their original locations and are familiar landmarks in Springbank Park.
For about 20 years, Robert farmed his land and also erected a number of buildings throughout the district. Hannah, who could be critical of others, remained her husband’s constant and loyal supporter.
Luckily, a picture of the pair survives. It is the copy of a painting done around the year 1850 by Cyrenius Hall (junior), showing Robert and Hannah Flint in the main room of their cottage. The picture also provides a glimpse into the simple lifestyle of the times – although the Flints appear to be wearing their finest apparel, rather than work clothes, for the portrait.
By then, the senior Flints were on their own. Daughter Mary had married William Blinn and lived on a nearby farm; son George had died of unexplained causes; sons Robert and Pirney had gone to the United States.
When Hannah wrote her letter in 1854 about the church construction, Pirney and Robert (junior) were living and working in California.
Pirney returned home in 1855 after a ten-year absence. He married Ann Elson a couple of years later, and settled down to raise his family (eight children in all), in his own stone house on the Flint farm. The youngest son’s timely return gave him a chance to reconnect with his father during the older man’s final four years. It was an opportunity that Robert (junior) missed.
Robert Flint, the builder of St. Anne’s, died in 1859 at the age of 75. Hannah Flint died six-and-a-half years later. Both were buried in Brick Street Cemetery.
Flint the stonemason left an outstanding legacy in the Byron area – a number of delightful stone buildings. Some of the structures (including St. Anne’s) still attest to the creativity and skill of their mid-nineteenth century builder.
Hannah’s gifts to future generations (notably to the members of St. Anne’s), were her letters. She wrote forthrightly, albeit through her own eyes, about some realities in the initial days of the congregation.
Robert (junior) did return to Byron, briefly, in the 1860’s. He married Eliza Elson, sister of Pirney’s wife, and moved back to California with his bride.
Pirney, who had learned the trade from his father, was later hired to do masonry and plastering for St. Anne’s when the 1877 repairs were being done.
The Completed Church
No records have been found describing exactly how and when the “pretty English Church” was finished. But funds, materials and help must have come forth eventually. Tradition holds that the building was completed and open for community worship some time in 1855.
The little stone church, measuring about 44 feet long (plus porch) and 29 feet wide, suited its humble village surroundings. It was simple and unpretentious with its low-pitched roof and the absence of tower or spire. Yet it was picturesque because of its stonework and symmetry, and “church-like” with its gothic windows.
The parishioners must have beamed with satisfaction as they filed into the church for the very first service. At last! After passing through the porch and entering the worship area, they would have found their seats, which were probably plank benches or stools or chairs – something portable, at any rate, to allow for versatile seating arrangements. Perhaps some one set out flowers for the occasion.
The church was probably filled to capacity. Such an event would have drawn most of the villagers as well as residents of nearby farms. Among the worshippers, no doubt, were people with the names of Hall, Flint, Wells, Ormond, Lee, Lackey, Coombs.
The identity of the clergyman who led that first service, is unknown. Nor is it even certain which denomination he represented. But surely, the first gathering was one of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Although Hannah Flint felt the church stood on “a wrong site close to the schoolhouse,” the church was actually built on the right site, in one respect at least. The deed stated that the land was for a church and burial ground. And the property, when purchased, already had at least three graves on it. Two headstones on the west side of the property, near the fence, mark the graves of Fidelia Hunt, age 29, wife of Burleigh Hunt, their daughter, Asenath, age three years, two months, and an unnamed infant son. All three died in 1832.
Following a common practice in those days, Archibald McMillan (property owner) must have allowed Burleigh to bury his family there. Therefore, the land was already a burial ground, making it an appropriate site for a church and cemetery. Perhaps Hannah Flint had something else in mind when she denounced the site.
Once the building was in use, the congregation would not have waited long before installing a small wood stove for heat. They would also have needed coal oil or kerosene lamps for light. But it is unlikely that anything lavish adorned the interior. The life of St. Anne’s Church probably began with the bare necessities. And presumably with a congregation of grateful hearts.