A not-so-silent celebration of Old St. Thomas Church

Bicentennial committee has a full year of events planned to celebrate church’s 200-year history

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It could have been a real Silent Night.

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Age – and mice – have silenced the old-time pump organ at Old St. Thomas Church, where a crowd gathered for a Christmas Eve service.

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Which is just about the same as the popular back story to Silent Night itself. Supposedly, the organ of the church where the hymn first was sung more than 200 years ago was unplayable for the same reason.

But the St. Thomas service wasn’t silenced. And Silent Night *was* sung. Church musician Catherine Villar accompanied the evening (and soloist Janette Byrne) on her accordion.

The traditional candlelit 11 p.m. service at the pioneer church attracted more than 80 participants.

“I was blown away by how many people showed up,” Rev. Canon Nick Wells, Old St. Thomas’s chaplain, says.

“I ran out of bulletins. I ran out of candles!”

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He credits unseasonably good weather. Although the church’s box pews can be cosy, the church is unheated.

Also, he says, people just may be emerging post-pandemic.

Which, as is said, is a good thing.

For this year, 2024, is the year of Old St. Thomas. The historic church, which received its first incumbent in 1824, is to celebrate its bicentennial this year by welcoming area residents to a number of special events.

Old St. Thomas *is* St. Thomas history, notes Steve Peters, who is vice-president of the trust that care takes the church for the Anglican Diocese of Huron and a member of the church’s bicentennial committee.

Physically, the whitewashed church on Walnut Street is the oldest building in the city, Steve says. And the oldest brick building, as well, which is a point we’ll get back to in a sec. Constructed of local brick reputed to have been fired in kilns on Spohn’s Flats below the church, those bricks almost were Old St. Thomas’s downfall.

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The land for the church and its churchyard – the resting place of many early St. Thomas residents – was donated in 1821 by Daniel Rapelje whose farm was the start of today’s city. He had buried two children on the property.

Construction began in 1822.

“(Old ST. Thomas) is important because it’s the oldest church between Six Nations and Amerherstberg,” Steve says. “It certainly predates anything in London.”

And since its construction, “It has been integral to the community.”

But let’s get back to those bricks.

Historian Steve and scribe Maridon Duncanson, a West Elgin native who also is a member of the church bicentennial committee, are preparing for a publication commemorating the milestone anniversary.

Steve smiles as he quotes a headline from an 1883 edition of the St. Thomas Times (which, in 1918, joined with the St. Thomas Journal to become what today is this T-J).

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“Doomed to Destruction,” the headline blazes in part as it introduces a report of a plan to demolish Old St. Thomas for that very brick, for construction of a school neighbouring Trinity Anglican Church on Wellington Street, where the congregation moved in 1877.

But the plan never came to pass. And a dozen years later, in 1894, the community formed the first Old St. Thomas restoration committee.

Since then, Steve notes, there has been continuing, broad-based community interest in preservation of the landmark. A most recent upkeep involving an assessment of the structure and remedial repair was undertaken just a couple of years ago.

Back to 2024.

To mark the start of Old St. Thomas’s anniversary year, the church trust is hosting a levee from 1 p.m to 4 p.m. Saturday, opening the red-painted doors of the building to all comers for a welcome and refreshment.

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“Most of the members of the trust will be there to meet and greet, and answer questions about the bicentennial,” Nick says.

“And to thank people for their support of the church.”

Bear away the bell

Ironically, while Old St. Thomas remains, Trinity Anglican is no longer, having closed in 2000 with the congregations of Trinity and St. John’s merging to become St. Thomas Anglican Church on Flora Street.

But the Trinity building has found a continued purpose as the newly opened St. Thomas Islamic Centre.

Now, the old church restoration trust, the new St. Thomas congregation and the Islamic Centre have agreed on the return of the bell at Trinity to Old St. Thomas, where it originally was installed in 1838.

The 500-pound bell, measuring some 28-and-a-half inches in diameter, is thought to be the third oldest bell in Ontario, Steve quotes experts, and may be the only bell in the province cast by the Maj. G. Holbrook foundry in Midway, Mass. Holbrook has a historical link to U.S. Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere.

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The bell was removed to Trinity when the congregation moved over, eventually to be replaced at Old St. Thomas’s by the bell from a steam locomotive, perhaps quite fitting to the Railway City’s history.

Specialist work lowering the bell at Trinity and moving it over to Old St. Thomas was estimated a year ago at about $4,000, Steve says.

“That’s one of our bicentennial projects.”

No plans, yet, for the bell once it is returned. It may not be original to the church, where no one today knows what, if anything, may have predated it in the building’s steeple, erected in 1825.

As Steve notes, it would just disappear from view if it were to be reinstalled at Old. St. Thomas’s.

Wafer woes

Saturday, by the way, is the Christian feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men to Bethlehem to greet newborn Jesus. It also is the end of Christmastide the night before.

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But bear with a column for just one last serving of the season. For what could Christmas be, without leftovers?

For many, Christmas baking includes a festive treat that doesn’t actually involve baking. It’s one of those icebox cakes made with chocolate wafers and whipping cream.

But many discovered this year that production of Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, a key ingredient, was quietly discontinued in 2023 after 100 years.

The company offered no real explanation but did offer an alternative: Oreo cookies scraped of frosting.

I mentioned this to a friend, Jane, who, as I did, grew up with chocolate wafer cake.

She bemoaned in an email reply: “Your quandary is one of the things that make me aware that I have overstayed my time. My go-to consumer products – Spic andSpan, Castile shampoo, real Hellman’s mayo, Emma coffee filters, Chanel No. 5, etc. – have either changed, downgraded their recipes or been discontinued!

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“There’s lots of traffic on the web about the chocolate wafers – how could Nabisco just drop them? The suggested replacements just aren’t the same. Oreos scraped of frosting … really? A real shame – an easy tasty dessert only a memory… nuts eh?”

Overstayed our time!? Jeepers. Jane and I both are gonna be 70 this year, sure, but that still seems to be rushing things just a bit along.

When I asked my older brother about the news, he sighed.

“My favourite dessert after peanut butter parfaits!”

But my People Pal Susan went ahead with Oreos. She left the frosting.

When we sampled, the result was acceptable, though, as Susan noted, things never seem to taste quite the same as you remember as a kid.

However,  the true test was her 13-year-old grandson’s try.

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And, yes, Susan now says, she’ll make revised chocolate wafer cake again.

“Because Chris loves it.”

Lovely lights and gloomy skies

Well, and here we are, well into another winter.

I’d like to think we can enjoy the consolation that the days *are* getting longer. And, in truth, they are by a few moments each day. But with the gloomy skies we’ve had of late (although, finally, Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny and crisp!), that’s difficult to believe, isn’t it?

All of which is by way of mentioning those lovely lights at Pinafore Park are to remain lighted through January – by the end of which, I am certain the season’s long winter nights *will* be shorter.

A footnote to a recent mention of the installation.

As noted a couple of weeks ago, major sponsors of the initiative are AMICO Construction and CLC Tree Services.

What I also could have noted, if I had been paying attention, is the two companies are in StT as contractors undertaking major site prep for the Volkswagen battery plant, work which had generated just a bit of comment.

So there you have it.

Stay well.

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