The Silver Chalices – St John’s Church, Elora

Overlooked here and abroad are the “slices” of world history that touch us here in Canada. One such link is that of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, and the first Rector of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Elora. What visibly ties them together, according to legend? The church silver!

The Historic Church

In 1830, the parish St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church was established, and the first church built in 1842. Originally it stood near the corner of Highways 7 and 21; today a cairn made of the original cemetery stones marks the spot by a small modern mall. In 1875 the present red brick Gothic revival church was built at the corner of Henderson and Smith Street, designed by Henry Langley, Ontario’s most prolific nineteenth century church architect.

The church is noted for its musical heritage, along with its good acoustics. It has one of Canada’s only fully professional church choirs, partners with the Elora Festival every July, and is the home venue for the Elora Singers since 1979. The choir has even sung in Westminster Abbey! The organ was built in 1899 by the Karn-Warren company in Woodstock, Ontario, for St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Oakville. In 1968 the then new Rector replaced the existing failing instrument with this one in Oakville. Apparently he and a parishioner drove a canvas covered hay truck to pick it up in pieces, and had to take cover under an overpass during a rainstorm to bring it home! Not forgetting education, St. John’s also established what is today’s St John’s-Kilmarnock School in Breslau.

Florence Nightingale

Two large stained-glass windows in the nave commemorate the Rev. John Smithurst and Florence Nightingale. Why? This is an unrequited love story!

In fact, there is no proof they even met. Most will tell you she was born to an English family of means in Italy, and named after the city of her birth. A year after her birth in 1820, the family moved back to England and she was brought up in her childhood home at Lea Hurst, Derbyshire, and Embley, Hampshire, estates her father inherited.

She was a woman way ahead of her times. The family was a liberal one, and believed in philanthropy, education and were abolitionists. In contrast to most women of her time, “Florence and her older sister Parthenope benefited from their father’s advanced ideas about women’s education. They studied history, mathematics, Italian, classical literature, and philosophy, and from an early age Florence, who was the more academic of the two girls, displayed an extraordinary ability for collecting and analyzing data which she would use to great effect in later life.” (BBC)

By Henry Hering (1814-1893) – National Portrait Gallery, London

In her day, women in her position were expected to marry well and be mothers and hostesses. Her mother was socially ambitious and nursing was viewed as low menial labour by the Upper Classes. By sixteen, Florence had a divine vision that nursing and caring for others was her true calling. When seventeen, she refused a marriage proposal from a “suitable” gentleman, Richard Monckton Milnes, saying her “moral… active nature… requires satisfaction, and that would not find it in this life.” Despite the family objections, she sought training as a nurse which included going to Germany. Several other suitors were apparent in her life too.

One turning point was meeting English-born Parisian salon hostess Mary Clarke. It was “Clarkey” who introduced her to the idea that women were men’s equal, and they became life-long friends. Another important friendship was meeting honeymooning Sidney Herbert, in 1947, a British politician. As secretary of War in the Crimean War, he and his wife ere key to her nursing work there. It was in Crimea where her efforts in the areas of hygiene, laundry, nutrition, sanitation, ventilation and such dramatically reduced death rates among the wounded. Her statistical models and concepts are foundations to nursing today. She was also a precursor to germ theory and she established the first scientifically based nursing school.  “She had access to people in high places and she used it to get things done. Florence was stubborn, opinionated, and forthright but she had to be those things in order to achieve all that she did.” Known as “Lady of the Lamp”, she personally made nightly rounds of the war wounded in Crimea holding her lamp.

Rev John Smithurst

In contrast, nothing is known about the early life of Rev. John Smithurst, except he was born in Derbyshire, in 1807. There was a story about him published in a 1921 Toronto Sunday World, where the reporter repeated what Smithurst had told farm neighbours about his life before he died. Supposedly they were denied marriage for being first cousins. It is said they “renounced their love and dedicated themselves to service of humanity–John to the souls of men, Florence to their bodies”.

Smithurst was accepted by the Church Missionary Society of England’s Islington college. A source says that “Like most missionary candidates of this period, many of them country-bred and influenced by evangelical vicars, Smithurst was deficient in education but strong in practical skills and spiritual conviction.” In 1839 he was ordained and sent to Rupert’s Land (in now basically Manitoba), then territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1840 his role as chaplain to HBC ended for a variety of reasons, and he became a missionary. He must have been a man of some ability, because he was the first Anglican missionary to learn the Aboriginal language, and also created a Cree-English dictionary as well as translating some services, although none of his work was published as the Church favoured the work of another. He also must have been very direct, and was described in his college days as “able to state the truth learnedly, but doing it without love…”. He became embroiled in a number of controversies and his last two years out west were apparently unhappy. He resigned in 1851, also suffering from rheumatism, and returned to England. It is claimed on his return, he tried to win Florence over again, but failed.

Smithurst came back in 1852, this time to Canada West (Ontario now) to become the first rector of St. John’s church in Elora. That same year, a silver communion service was donated to the Elora church, supposedly by Florence Nightingale when she went to serve in the Crimea as a nurse. It actually reads “To a dear friend” and “for many kindnesses” via an acting agent, Ebenezer Hall. He retired in 1857 and died in 1867, buried in the Elora Cemetery. Interestingly, his farm near there was named “Lea Hurst”, after where he was born and she grew up. 

Smithurst’s various papers are in the Rupert’s Land Archives, and archives in Manitoba and Alberta. His books were left to the Bishop of Toronto, John Strachan, for use by the University of Trinity College (now part of the University of Toronto).

The Church Continues Traditions

The silver chalices are on display in the church. St John’s Church in Elora is a popular place to visit any time of the year to be inspired by the sounds of St John’s Parish Choir, one of Canada’s preeminent choirs, or take in a concert. Services for Easter, a Coronation Evensong in May, and traditional Advent and Christmas services of Lessons and Carols in December are always popular events to attend. The Elora Singers and other musical events are highlighted during The Elora Festival in July. To mark Remembrance Day a breathtaking display of knitted and crocheted poppies cascades down from the church steeple to commemorate our veterans. Whatever draws you to this traditional country parish you will be inspired to encounter something beautiful.


Author: LivingSpaces

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