Layers [Lairs] in Time: Westminster United Church, Orangeville

The tower of Westminster United Church certainly dominates the skyline as you approach it from any distance. Most of us take for granted that it is just “there” as a major landmark of the town. But what is its story?

It has actually been that landmark since 1879! Born in 1851, the architect, Cornelius J. Soule, started his career initially in designing a high school for Campbellford in 1871. Besides Westminster United Church, he designed the Dufferin County Courthouse in 1881. Soule was also responsible for many other buildings in Guelph. His practice extended across Canada from the Methodist Church in Portage La Prairie to Victoria where he designed St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church and the British Columbia Agricultural Exhibit Hall, as well as a number of residences and hotels in and around British Columbia. Found in Westminster’s church archives are Soule’s original specifications, including the paint colours for the decorations outside!

Westminster United Church was in fact, first built as St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Prior to the church being built, nothing existed on the site. Local material was used for the building itself. The brick came from town brickyards. The stone came from quarries in the Hockley Valley. The work was contracted out to Orangeville builders Hugh Haley, who was the carpenter and contractor and Robert Hewitt, the bricklayer and stone mason. Today, some of the original glass can still be seen if you look at the tops of the large bishop’s eye windows, and, on the east and west landings, the lancet windows.

So whence comes the name “Westminster”? Its denominational history reflects that of change, adaptation and the eventual creation of the United Church of Canada. In 1837, the Orangeville area Presbyterians formed a congregation under Rev. Alexander Lewis. The Methodists did not organize one until 1849, because they were receiving their services from missionaries and “saddle-bag preachers”. Three more congregations developed shortly afterwards, and by 1858, the community had two Presbyterian churches and three Methodist churches. St. Andrew’s Church was formed by the old Bethel and new Zion Presbyterian congregations joining up and moving into Soule’s new building. The two Methodist churches banded together in 1884 as Orangeville Methodist Church at 6 First Avenue. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the drive for church union between Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists grew stronger and became Canada- wide, and by 1925 the United Church of Canada was born, through an act of Parliament.

However, until 1948 Orangeville still had two United Churches, one on Broadway and one on First. In 1948, the local high school burned down and two churches got together, in order to free up one building for temporary school use. An independent commission of three men from Toronto chose St. Andrew’s and a new name was also chosen by congregation members; Westminster – the west church ministering to the town.

Over the years, this church has been continually modernized in other ways. After the two churches unified in May of 1948, the original layout was changed and major renovations done as stipulated by the merger, to make it look like a new building. The Baby Boom required the construction of the Christian education wing and the addition/renovation of several classrooms in 1959. The condition of the sanctuary floor in 1976 forced more changes, including a sloped floor with steep steps in the front (eliminated more recently for safety and accessibility reasons), double side aisles with safety barriers and a balcony in the centre which blocked the south window. Side pews were faced in on sloping floors. In 1990, part of the original plaster of the ceiling fell down just before services were about to begin. Fortunately no one was hurt; but it did have to be replaced. In 2013 an elevator was added for more access, and a storeroom built to balance the church front. In keeping with an overall chief objective of a generally accessible place of worship, another set of renovations was begun in 2016. Halfway through, the floor was raised and levelled, chairs replaced pews to allow variable seating, the balcony was removed, and the chancel now has two fixed and retractable levels (replacing the steep steps) as well as a moveable organ console. Screens on either side of the chancel show electronically the order of service, or programmes, doing away with the need for paper. Throughout all of this, the church has been careful to keep all the stained glass windows, some going back to 1879.

Now a new capital campaign was begun at the end of March to raise a further $700,000 which is needed for ongoing projects. This is mainly to upgrade the kitchen to a modern, commercial standard, consistent with health department requirements. Plans also include two more accessible washrooms on the upper level with a large room behind the sanctuary for meetings, weddings, grieving families, and to be used as “green room” for performers to warm up and relax in.

Speaking of the green room, Westminster Church provides many services to the broader community, and not just church members. The auditorium rivals The Orangeville Town Hall Opera House for seating, so provides the venue for many concerts and performances. In all, about 120 events, meetings, music lessons, and concerts happen a month here. The new kitchen will permit nutrition programmes and the possibility for children and youth programming, besides regular community dinners. The church is all about outreach, and 120 families rely on its emergency food stock, besides a milk and formula program for mothers who need that assistance. A bi-weekly clothing sale of good used items is also held.

In short, the Westminster Church has morphed over its lifetime to be not only the centre of its own community, but a hub for the community at large!

Written by: Diana Janosik-Wronski

Author: Living Spaces

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