Researched and written by Shirley Geigen Miller
Chapter IV - The Mystery Years
Information is scanty on the first 20 years of St. Anne’s history. One can only piece together the fragments which have been uncovered to date, and mix them with what is known about the era, to try to get a picture of that period.
St. Anne’s was not consecrated as an Anglican church until 1878. Still, it had an Anglican identity right from the start. In the community, it was called an English Church. The county’s general directories from the period, refer to it as a Church of England or an Episcopalian Church. And the church hierarchy, particularly after the Diocese of Huron was established in 1857, made efforts to appoint a cleric to Byron. The visits were infrequent, to be sure, since the clergy had large territories to cover and they travelled by horse. Diocesan records show that in 1857 there were only 42 clergy and 59 churches in the entire diocese. Nevertheless, from time to time a clergyman of Anglican orders arrived in Byron, called the congregation together and performed the rites of the church.
Another aspect of St. Anne’s identity was that it was a community church. As the only church building in the village, it was used for services by other Christian denominations as well. This arrangement was not unique to Byron. In the early days of London and Delaware, various denominations also shared facilities, gathering for worship at different times. Co-operation may have grown as much out of practicality as good will, but it was co-operation nonetheless. And folks were neighbours, after all.
Grace Bainard identifies the following denominations – besides Anglicans - as being those that held services at St. Anne’s during the first 20 years: Presbyterians, itinerant evangelists, New Connexionists, Wesleyan Methodists, Bible Christians and Episcopal Methodists. The latter four, along with the Primitive Methodists, amalgamated in 1884 to form The Methodist Church of Canada.
Another group using St. Anne’s in those years was an organization called the Sons of Temperance who rented the church for meetings. The building was evidently well-used.
The earliest written reference to an Anglican priest visiting St. Anne’s is found in the Goodspeed history of Middlesex County. While the report is listed under Lambeth, rather than Hall’s Mills or Byron, the information fits with what is known of St. Anne’s at the time.
The account states: “In 1856, Rev. [Abraham] St. George Caulfield, of St. Thomas, was appointed to the mission of Westminster. About 1859 a temperance meeting was held within the church (a stone building) for the use of which the temperance men paid one dollar a month rent. Some one complained that they were destroying the building; but Mr. Caulfield, who was sent to report, could not agree with the rumor.”
Three terms in this passage, “Westminster,” “stone building” and “temperance men,” indicate that the church Caulfield visited was St. Anne’s.
At the formation of the diocese, Caulfield was indeed rector of St. Thomas Church in St. Thomas, and he also had charge of “Westminster (Christ Church),” which would have been Glanworth.(from Clerical Register I) However, other sources indicate that Caulfield ministered to the whole township of Westminster, as well as St. Thomas, and that his circuit included Glanworth (a wood frame church built in 1844), the Lambeth congregation (whose white brick church was not built until 1863), and Hall’s Mills (stone church built in 1855).
One can reasonably conclude that Caulfield not only visited St. Anne’s in 1859 to investigate the complaint, but was also one of the first designated Anglican clerics to the church. Possibly THE first. He probably journeyed from St. Thomas several times to conduct services and succor the faithful in Byron.
Caulfield was an Irishman who graduated from the University of Dublin and was priested in Toronto in 1848. At St. Thomas, however, his responsibilities were impossibly rigorous and far-flung. He must have been delighted, therefore, to obtain the help of a young Canadian-born curate, Rev. Maurice Scollard Baldwin, in 1860.
Baldwin, who was ordained deacon by Bishop Cronyn in 1860, and priested in 1861, relieved Caulfield of many duties in the widespread parish. While stationed in St. Thomas, the new curate was called upon to make many long horse-and-buggy drives throughout the region. Baldwin’s biographical material affirms that the charge covered Lambeth, Byron and Glanworth, as well as St. Thomas, during his two-year posting.
Many years later, Baldwin became the third Bishop of Huron, succeeding Bishop Isaac Hellmuth in 1883. Baldwin had a reputation as an evangelist and an eloquent preacher. He is said to have given of his best, whether he was addressing a large city congregation or a little country church at the crossroads. An article by Dr. A. H. Crowfoot says of Baldwin: “He loved people wherever he found them, and people loved him.” (London Free Press, May 27, l961)
Bishop Baldwin died in London in 1904. St. Paul’s Cathedral was crowded with those wishing to pay last respects to the beloved shepherd of the diocese.
While Baldwin was a horse-and-buggy traveller in his early ministry (allowing him to take his fiancée along as passenger), most travelling clergy of the era journeyed from mission to mission on horseback. They often encountered obstacles such as swamps, storms or even rattlesnakes along the way. And their duties included carrying all their priestly needs with them.
Details of this are spelled out in Rev. David George Bowyer’s book, The Church at the Cross Roads, Trinity Church, Lambeth, 1863-1988.
“While on these jaunts into the surrounding settlements,” writes Bowyer, “these travelling priests would carry a valise containing gown, surplice, books, communion elements, chalice and cup, with a great coat and umbrella strapped over it. They would pass along to their parishioners religious tracts, books, Bibles and Prayer Books, supplied by an English missionary group, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.”
One can only wonder how the heavy-laden horses, let alone the priests, survived the treks.
It was one such horseback cleric, Rev. Alexander Potts, who was the next Anglican priest definitely connected to St. Anne’s.
Potts began his ministry to Lambeth, Hall’s Mills (Byron) and Oneidatown in late 1861. His short-lived ministry might have faded into obscurity, were it not for Bowyer, a former rector of Trinity Church, Lambeth. Bowyer delved into past records, minutes and letters for a parish history of Trinity in 1988. He uncovered documented information about the little-known priest.
Alexander Potts was born in Ireland in 1822. His first career was as a teacher and in the 1850’s, having moved to Upper Canada, he became schoolmaster at Muncey Indian Reservation. Coincidently, he served as an assistant to its missionary, Richard Flood – who seems to have inspired him. Potts decided to enter the ministry himself.
After his ordination as deacon by Bishop Cronyn in 1859, Potts was assigned “Missionary to Indians, River Thames.” (from Clerical Register I) He continued to serve native missions after becoming a priest the following year, travelling back and forth from the village of Delaware where he lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and young son.
His appointment to Lambeth and Byron in late 1861 would have been a change for Potts. But he continued to serve in Oneida and devoted himself to all three of his congregations.
During his first year he baptized 20 children. After three years, he had performed a total of 47 baptisms, eight of the recipients being listed as “Indians.” (from Trinity Church parish register)
Relevant to St. Anne’s is the record of Potts’ baptism of two Ormond children. Walter and Mary Elizabeth, children of Meredith and Matilda Ormond of Westminster were baptized on March 1, 1863. The Ormonds were a pioneer family of St. Anne’s, and their descendents still belong to the church in 2019. Although written in the Trinity Church register, the Ormond baptisms might have been held at St. Anne’s. All Potts’ baptisms were recorded in one book.
Also in 1863, under Potts’ charge, the Lambeth church was built and officially opened for worship. Trinity Church was consecrated in January, 1864.
Less than a year later, the life of this dedicated priest was cut short. Alexander Potts died at his home in Delaware on December 10, 1864, at the age of 42. The funeral was held at Trinity Church and Potts was buried in Trinity’s churchyard.
And here the mystery deepens regarding St. Anne’s history. No further clerical records have been traced until 1877. During the intervening years, Byron must have been attached to other Anglican pastors’ circuits. It is known that worship services of the Church of England were held periodically in the church. But the names of the clergy who conducted them, remain elusive, at this point.
At a time when church records were either hidden, lost, or were not kept in the first place, the pioneer members of the congregation were moving into the community. This core group of people would assure the future of the church. Stone by living stone, they laid the spiritual foundation of St. Anne’s
- Ann Terry Lee moved into her home on Centre Street (now 249 Hall’s Mill Rd.) in 1848, after the death of her husband, the renowned Dr. Hiram Davis Lee of London. Ann is said to have been a faithful worker for the church in the start-up years. She is also reputed to have operated a private school at her home, prior to the erection of the public school.
- Meredith and Matilda Ormond, after their marriage in 1850, settled on 150 acres on Commissioner’s Road, opposite Kains Road. They built a log house and raised eight children there. Meredith assisted with the original construction of St. Anne’s. Descendants have had an unbroken active involvement with the church ever since.
- In 1862, Archibald and Mary Kains and three children settled on a farm just west of Byron. Living in a log house close to the river, the couple was to have three more children to complete their family. The Kains had come from St. Thomas where they belonged to the well-established parish of St. Thomas. In Byron, Archie was instrumental in organizing the 1877 repairs to St. Anne’s, and also helped with the rebuilding. Life-long member Grace (Kains) Bainard was a granddaughter.
- One of the earliest worshippers, Elizabeth S. Hart, walked from her home in the vicinity of Commissioner’s and Wonderland roads to St. Anne’s Church in the 1860’s. She was the great-grandmother of Kae (Hart) Ellis, another life-long member of the church.
- In 1871, Henry Wickerson and Caroline Branston were married and resided on the family farm on what is now Wickerson Road. They raised 10 children there and the family was active in both community and church life. The Rev. Peter Wickerson. a former rector of St. Anne’s (2002-2005), is a direct descendant of the pioneer couple.
- William C. Meriam and his wife Susanna (Mulholland) bought 110 acres on Commissioner’s Road, west of Byron, in 1872, moving there with their grown-up family. One son, Wesley, married Annie Bella Ormond (daughter of Meredith and Matilda), thus joining two of St. Anne’s pioneer families. Wesley and Annie had 10 children. The entire Meriam clan was active in the church from its early days and all are buried in St. Anne’s cemetery. Barbara (Meriam) Kightley, life-long parishioner, is a descendant.
While the aforementioned individuals and families are not the only ones who played a role in the mystery years, they do provide examples of the faith and dedication that carried the congregation through until the church’s consecration. Other families who would have been there, such as the Wells’ and Flints, are mentioned elsewhere in this history.
The village of Byron, meanwhile, was enjoying a period of industrial growth. The manufacturing area along the Thames River spilled east of Boler Road, at this time.
Among the industries operating at Byron in the 1860’s and 70’s were: a hame factory for harness (John Sissons and Sons); two woollen mills (Griffith Brothers and J. and J. Dufton and Company); three flour and grist mills (F. H. Kenny, Charles Coombs and Robert Summers, proprietors); two sawmills (one owned by Sissons); two distilleries; a tannery; a chair factory.
Other businesses included: two blacksmiths, two hotels, a tavern, a boot and shoemaker, general merchants, carpenters, a weaver, a silversmith.
The village boasted tri-weekly mail by then and Robert Sadler was postmaster – as well as a general merchant – throughout the time period.
Some of these names (specifically Kenny, Coombs and Sadler) would also appear in connection with St. Anne’s. Hence, more “living stones” reinforced the small congregation.
Huron College Opens
Meanwhile, something important had happened in the Diocese of Huron. On December 2, 1863, Huron College, an institution for the education of Anglican clergy, was officially opened in London.
News of the event probably trickled down to the Anglican community in Byron. But local parishioners may not have realized that a turning point had occurred in the life of the diocese. While not affected immediately, St. Anne’s would eventually benefit from the creation and functioning of Huron College.
Bishop Cronyn had two main reasons for founding the college. One was to address the severe shortage of clergy in the diocese. (In 1863, more than 50 townships were still without the ministrations of the Church of England.) The second was to establish a theological college based on low-church teachings, rather than the high-church principles of Toronto’s Trinity College.
The direction of the diocese had been set for years to come.
Despite being part of a forward-looking diocese, and despite being located in a flourishing village, St. Anne’s hit a low ebb. Little by little, during the mystery years, the church fell into a state of disrepair. One might think this was a consequence of the building being used by so many groups, or of the irregular attendance of an Anglican cleric. But that would underestimate the problem.
According to Nancy Tausky, architectural historical consultant, the run-down condition of the church in 1874 “suggests poor maintenance and perhaps a ‘finishing’ job [of the roof and floor] that was meant to be only temporary in the first place.” (from her article, Memorials in Paper and Stone, in the book, Simcoe’s Choice, 1992) In other words, parts of the structure may have been unsound from the start.
At least one meager attempt had been made to keep up with the wear and tear on the church. An 1871 receipt for $1.38-worth of incidentals (putty, nails, glass, lumber, trim) says on the back: “Hall’s Mills Church Paid Dec. 30/71 Paid by Trustees at Hall’s Mills.”
This indicates that local trustees were attending to the business of the church – sort of. But a bit of putty wasn’t going to do the trick.
The receipt also demonstrates that although the village may have been officially named Byron in 1857, the name Hall’s Mills was still being used long afterwards.
In May 1872, an insurance policy was taken out on the church. The church and contents were insured for $250 with Westminster Mutual Fire Insurance Company. The annual premium, at the time, was 50 cents. Application for the insurance was made by (Rev.) J. W. Marsh, secretary of the Church Society of the Diocese of Huron, and the bills for payment went to him. So the diocese was lending support, too.
Nevertheless, the condition of the church worsened and the community became distressed. It was time to take action.
The following letter to the secretary of the Church Society was written at Byron on June 20, 1874:
“Dear Sir, I have been requested to write you about the Church at Byron. It needs the roof and Floor reparing very much. The Sons of Temperance think if you would alow the rent of the Building to go toward fixing it, it could be fixed by them for about $40.00 yours Truly, H. Coombs, Sec’y.
P.S. Please reply as soon as possiby.”
At its next sitting, on August 27, 1874, the Standing Committee of the Church Society approved the proposal and appointed the rural dean (Rev. M. P. Smith of Strathroy) to see that the repair work was properly carried out.
True to their word, the temperance men set to work and did some “fixing.”
Then, yet another obstacle arose. The group had difficulty in obtaining reimbursement for its expenses. A few months later, H. Coombs was obliged to write another letter, this time to the rural dean. The letter from Byron, dated December 7, 1874, follows:
“Dear Sir, The Amt. collected is seven dollars fifty-five cents. The amount expended is about Thirty-five Dollars. The floor, windows, chimney etc. have been repaired likewise We have whitewashed the whole building. I think there is no further fixing required at present. This is the second time I have wrote to you about this matter. Yours Truly, H. Coombs.”
Contrary to Coombs’ belief, “further fixing” WAS required. The 1874 repairs proved inadequate as well. And it is apparent from the second letter that a major hindrance, once again, as it had been 20 years before, was “the want of funds.”
More dark days followed. At the start of 1877, the church building desperately needed work and the coffers were empty.
But the situation was about to change …