by The Reverend Stuart Ivison (First Baptist Church’s longest serving minister)
The deep attachment of a congregation to its place of worship is proverbial, and the longer a church building stands, the more hallowed it becomes. It is true that the danger of paying too much veneration to material structures can be very real. Some churches cling to their traditional locations and ancient buildings long after they should have moved. Others will give up strategic sites and vacate valuable properties without realizing what they have done, in return for something not nearly as worthy or challenging. Some extremists in our time even suggest that we should not invest in permanent buildings at all, but do our work in temporary quarters such as rented store fronts, cinemas, or space in shopping centres.
Historically, Baptists have tried to avoid the two extremes of undue emphasis on shrines and the careless neglect that allows the place of worship to deteriorate into shabbiness. Willing to begin their witness in a new community in temporary facilities, they have seldom been satisfied to remain there, but have sacrificed and laboured to acquire a permanent building of their own to serve as a centre of activity for the “church family” and to be set apart as a “house of God” however unpretentious.
First Baptist Church, Ottawa is typical of this historic Baptist trend. We began as a small group meeting in a private residence, Mr. Babcock’s house on Wellington Street. We moved into a rented hall for our first public preaching services. Next came a much longed for “church home,” a neat stone structure on the south side of Queen Street between Elgin and Metcalfe, seating 200 worshipers, and built with the help of many volunteers who contributed their skills along with gifts in kind as well as money. One member, Mr. Warwicker, made the white oak frames for the ornate gothic windows, shaping and carving them by hand. A Baptist friend in Brockville, owner of a foundry, James Smart by name, contributed two handsome stoves for heating. The popular caretaker, Mr. Louise Blais, a devoted member of the church, lived with his family on the premises in a small apartment included for that purpose in the building plans.
When it was opened with great celebration in 1863, the Queen Street “Chapel” as it was popularly called, appeared likely to meet the needs of the church, which had around sixty members, for a long time to come. Intimate, comfortable, yet sufficiently commodious, it gave the people a sense of pride and security. Small wonder that when within twelve years it proved inadequate for the growing congregation in an expanding city, there were some who tried in every way possible to avoid giving it up. Yet when the time for decision came, it was made with firmness. The trustees were authorized to provide a new building, at the location deemed by them to be most suitable, and the site of our present building was chosen.
In the story of that new venture, we can again discern the effort to avoid the extremes of over-extravagance and false economy. Some wanted a stone building as being more dignified as well as more durable. Others, the majority, voted for brick because it would cost less. In the end, the brick makers could not fill the order as they had promised so it turned out to be a stone building after all!
Though built solidly to last indefinitely, the building was designated the “Baptist Tabernacle” (as we can see from the carved stone above the main door) thus distinguishing the “church” from the building that housed it, and reminding us that no building can last forever. Interestingly enough, the building on Queen Street, though referred to as the “chapel,” had carried the name “First Baptist Church” cut in a marble slab on its outside wall. We do well to remember also, that the Tabernacle in the Bible, though moveable and temporary, was designed, decorated and furnished with elaborate care and much expense. Moses allowed no skimping on the plans given to him by God on the mountain!
When the public saw the impressive edifice the Baptists had built, they were deeply impressed. The papers remarked on the fact that they had managed to do it in a time of economic depression. The new building was photographed for inclusion in a widely circulated set of stereopticon views of the capital city. A beautiful multi-coloured engraving was published in the illustrated magazine, Picturesque Canada. These illustrations are now collectors’ items, and a copy of the church etching, found in a Montreal art store, was given to this writer by Dr. R.B. Hubbard, of the National Art Gallery. It hangs in the church vestry. The silver trowel presented to then Prime Minister, Alexander Mackenzie, when he laid the cornerstone in 1877 is also in our possession, returned to the church by Mackenzie’s grandson, Mr. R.F. Thompson, in 1946. Later, in the 1930’s when Prime Minister Mackenzie King was discussing the development of our nation’s capital with the world-famous city planner, Jacques Greber, the latter studied the clean gothic lines of the church as seen from the top of Elgin Street and from the Laurier Avenue bridge and said, “that little church must always remain there.” Present day artists and photographers return to it constantly as a subject. In the midst of the towering business blocks that have risen around it, its quiet serenity continues undiminished.
Outwardly, the church’s appearance has changed very little in the century now gone. About the only difference has been the removal of the decorative ironwork on the tips of the two spires, plus, of course, the addition of the west wing in 1914. Inside, both above ground and below, it has been a different story. Everywhere we look we can detect signs of former arrangements and a series of alterations.
If we start in the lower hall, we can see in the west wall where two chimneys carried off the smoke from the twin wood-burning hot air furnaces that heated the building and took up a large amount of space in the room. Families from Hull and Chelsea would drive by horse-drawn carriage or sleigh to the morning service, eat their noon-day lunches in the cold weather beside the furnaces, and stay for afternoon Sunday School. The stage then was where it is now, but in the interval it has been over against the west wall, on the opposite side of the room, then on the north side completely blocking that entrance, and back again against the west wall before returning to its original and present position. The south-east corner room, called the “library,” was the original minister’s vestry, and stairs led up to the church from the landing that still provides an exit to Elgin Street. Under the arrangement one could enter off Elgin and go up a few steps into the church at the south-east corner of what is now the chancel, but was then the rear of the semi-circular auditorium, or down, as at present to the lower hall and the minister’s vestry. The first machinery in the basement was the water motor that provided wind pressure for the small pipe organ that was installed in the gallery in 1890.
Up in the church the changes have been so extensive that it is hard to know where to begin. Instead of a rectangular nave, with straight aisles, straight pews, and a stepped chancel surmounted by pulpit and lectern, backed by a decorative reredos rich in uniquely artistic symbols, the pews were curved in amphitheatre style, facing the west side, where the pulpit stood on a simple platform with the baptistry on the same level behind it and a communion table with deacons’ chairs down in front to the platform facing the front pew. The small gallery, high up on the minister’s left was occupied by the choir and organ, unseen by quite a large part of the congregation who were seated with their backs to it, but visible to the people at the south end. Flights of narrow stairs led from the back of the pulpit platform, past the baptistry, down to the lower hall. The chief entrance to the building, then, as now, was from the main doors and the side door opening on Maria Street, re-named Laurier Avenue. The first organ was a reed instrument, which from the beginning failed to satisfy certain outspoken male members of the choir. Two of them, Howe and Parson by name, kept urging the church at its business meetings to get an organ of “greater power.” They have their wish at last!
Thirty-five years after the building was dedicated, a consensus was reached to extend it westward onto part of a lot that had been acquired in 1901. Discussion of this move had gone on since 1906, and one plan for increasing the educational facilities, re-building the organ, and re-locating the choir behind the pulpit had been presented in 1909 and rejected. Finally, in February 1914, approval was given to proceed with the addition of an extension to house a new heating system (a combination of steam and hot water), a kitchen, vestry, choir room, new baptistry and changing rooms, and two general purpose rooms on the second floor. Entrance to the new baptistry was also made from the second floor level. A large organ chamber was constructed on the third floor.
Joining the new wing to the original church, and providing communication between the two, meant drastic changes, as we can see by glancing around both the lower hall and the sanctuary. First, a large opening, two stories high, was made in the masonry wall on the west side of the church, and arched on top. Into the arch were fitted the decorative “show pipes” of the greatly enlarged organ, which filled the lofty chamber beyond. Directly beneath the silent show pipes of the organ, above and behind the choir and pulpit platform, appeared the baptistry, as at present, though choir pews and pulpit are no longer there.
One door, not two, as is now the case, led from the church to the corridor behind the vestry and choir room, and to the stairs leading down to the kitchen and lower hall. The rectangular opening for this single door was close to the present War Memorial Tablets. Looking closely at the wall just above that now closed-up door, we can see the outline of a lancet window, also closed up, because the new side building had blotted out its light.
The new addition, including the enlarged organ, cost just over $40,000.00. The church, with its land and furnishings, had cost $21,700.00 in 1878. That the project was pressed with vigor by those in charge is evidenced by the fact that eleven months after the church gave its approval, the work was finished and dedication services held on December 20 and 27, 1914.
Throughout the 1914-18 World War, and into the middle 1920’s, no changes were made in the structure, and even necessary maintenance fell behind at times. War-time conditions, several changes in pastorate, with lengthy intervals when there was no minister in charge, unrest in the Baptist denomination and the transition to that of a downtown church as the city expanded all had their effect, though there continued to be a central core of devoted, capable and enthusiastic people in the church. In November 1926, a visiting minister from Birmingham, England, the Reverend A. Robert George, was invited to supply the pulpit for four months, and in January 1927, he accepted the church’s invitation to become its minister.
By that time, certain renovations and repairs had become imperative, from the spires and roof to the interior walls, organ and electric wiring. The final incident that prompted immediate action was the loosening of a portion of plaster wall a few feet square, at congregational eye level, creating an ugly patch right beside the pulpit platform, in full view of everyone. It happened on a Saturday night, and greeted the minister and church officials as they arrived on Sunday morning. A large flag (Union Jack) was hastily draped over the spot, and remained there for some months until workmen arrived to start the renovations that altered the church’s interior almost beyond recognition.
Instead of carrying out a superficial decoration, the church decided to follow the leadership of Mr. George and a group of generous members and proceeded to convert the sanctuary from amphitheatre to chancel style. Two new doorways were opened into the side building, and the former one was covered over. The steps that led to it from the vestry corridor are still there, but unwary persons who mount them thinking to enter the church find themselves looking into a storage cupboard! Baptistry and organ remained where they were, but the organ console was moved to a recess in the floor of the chancel, and the choir now occupied stalls on either side of the central pulpit, facing inward across the communion table.
A brilliant Ottawa architect, A.J. Hazelgrove, designed and supervised the renovations, including the pulpit, reredos, pews and other furniture. All of the windows were re-glazed in stained glass as conceived and executed by the Toronto artist, Peter Howarth. The large north window, a memorial to John C. Edwards and John Archibald Cameron, his cousin, with its Ottawa Valley motif, depicting workers in the forest industries on either side of the Divine Carpenter, is uniquely Canadian. Mr. Howarth received special recognition for his design and colouring of the small figures in the side windows, which illustrate an ancient hymn.
The actual installation of all the woodwork was carried out by a much loved member of the church, Mr. R.A. Sproule, who later became a life deacon. He was well known as a master of his craft. The massive chandeliers, with matching wall lanterns, unusual in style and so far as is known, not duplicated elsewhere, were not part of the original plan, but were offered at a special price by the makers, who were anxious to have them installed where they could be demonstrated to full advantage.
The climax of all this effort was reached on Sunday, October 27, 1928, when the church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the building, and held its first service in the remodeled sanctuary. The occasion was also observed as Mr. George’s second anniversary as minister. The memorial window was not yet ready for unveiling. That event followed on Sunday morning, June 2, 1929, when Lord Willingdon, the governor-general, officiated.
For the next decade, until war came again in 1939, no need seemed to arise for any special adaptations of the building. Minor repairs and routine maintenance were attended to, but little else was thought of. With the influx of war workers, however, the rationing of gasoline, and the restriction of people’s movement in various ways, the churches filled a larger and larger role as meeting places for social contact, especially on Sunday evenings.
Many churches, including ours held well-attended “Sunday evening hours” of a social nature, and by 1942 our lower hall was proving inadequate. It was decided to redecorate it to make it more attractive, and, with some regret, to remove the stage which had been a popular feature, but was now in conflict with fire regulations because it obstructed a main exit. The old battleship linoleum was taken up and asphalt tiles laid on the floor. This carried us through until peace returned.
Up in the church, the organ was suffering from tired metal in some of the pipes and warping and shrinkage of some of the wood, but it was kept going by a cleaning job on the pipes and valves and the provision of a new console. This latter item had considerable re-sale value when the old instrument was finally given up in 1965. Two significant additions were made to the fixtures in the church soon after World War II. One was a second brass tablet bearing the names of those who had served in the armed forces between 1939 and 1945, and the other was the oak lectern designed by Mr. A. J. Hazelgrove to conform with the pulpit and communion table for which he had been responsible in 1928, and erected in memory of Flight-Lieutenant H.D.F. (“Fred”) MacAllister by his mother and sisters. Judge J.E. and Mrs. Read gave the church new communion vessels in memory of their son, Captain J.J.C. Read who was killed at Falaise in 1944, and these are used regularly.
As the centenary of the church’s founding in 1857 drew nearer, it was decided to start a special fund of $27,000.00, with $3,000.00 going to assist a new church in Ottawa (Bethany) and the remainder divided equally between a scholarship fund at McMaster Divinity College and the re-furbishing of the church in preparation for the anniversary. In the three year period leading up to 1957, the fund was fully subscribed and most of the work that had been planned was done. The women’s organizations entered wholeheartedly into the effort and provided some needed items from their own resources. Stacking chairs and tables were bought for the lower hall. The kitchen was re-modeled and equipped. The upstairs parlour had already been given new furniture and draperies, the floor carpeted and walls freshly painted. A small kitchenette, which also serves as a sacristy for preparing communion, was established upstairs in the side building, all thanks to the ladies!
By 1955 it was possible to cover the main church spire with copper, ending the need for periodic painting by the expensive labour of steeple jacks. A few years earlier, some trustees had grown so weary of maintaining the spire that they discussed having it removed. The two architects who came, at the trustees’ request, to inspect it as to soundness (or unsoundness) pronounced it safe and urged the minister privately not to let them take it down under any consideration! The copper sheathing proved to be the solution. The smaller spire had, in fact, been mostly removed during the alterations of 1928, and the base “temporarily” capped with what looked like a square lamp shade. At the urging of the late Mr. W.D. Burden, who gave a special gift to assist, a new welded steel pinnacle was made, hoisted into place by a huge crane and also sheathed in copper to match the main spire.
Inside, the church walls were freshly painted and all the woodwork, including the pews and communion table were carefully cleaned and hand-rubbed with special wax to “feed” the wood and prevent opening up of the grain through dryness. The windows were cleaned outside and in, and the memorial window glazed on the outside with clear glass for protection and insulation. We looked around us at a nice clean church, back over a century to the founding of the organization, and forward to the centennial of the building in 1978 as the next main milestone. Now if only the organ…!
Ah yes, the organ! Part of it, that sounded from the gallery in 1890, was 75 years old, and of inferior metal that had grown tired, so tired that some of the pipes had developed wrinkles and sank straight down in their places under their own weight. Others just drooped over sideways. Something had to be done, but what? The trouble was partly hidden because two brilliant organists, Victor Togni in 1958-59 and Russell Green, 1959-63, made it sound nobly in spite of its defects, and Raymond Barnes, who tuned and serviced it, kept his finger on its pulse constantly, but we all knew its days were numbered.
A committee was formed and studies began. A fund was started and much information gathered. For those who are interested, a fairly complete record has been compiled and is kept in the church office. Messrs. Casavant Frères of St. Hyacinthe, sent their general manager, Charles Perreault, to talk to us, and their tonal director, Lawrence Phelps, also paid us a visit. Neither one tried to sell us an organ, but both had suggestions, each from the standpoint of his specialty, as to how our need could be met. Neither one wanted anything to do with hiding an organ back in a chamber when we had a gallery that had been built originally for that purpose. A two-manual instrument, they said, would be sufficient, and at our request they drew up tentative specifications. The organ would be in three sections, Great, Swell and Pedal, and would be placed in the gallery, divided so as not to hide the window.
The committee, which had some very knowledgeable people on it, rejected the plan. They wanted more “foundation” in the Great and Pedal, more Mixtures, and a larger Swell section for purposes of accompaniment. The builders said it could not be done, there was not enough room. But when asked what they could do if we extended the gallery both in length and depth by a cantilevered projection they said they could build us the best two-manual instrument to be found anywhere.
Architects Craig and Kohler planned the structural changes, the organ was built in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, where a number of people from the church went to see and hear it before it left the factory, and it was dedicated in jubilation and solemnity on Sunday, March 20, 1966. The choir was once again in the gallery, where it had been in our great-grandparents’ time.
Since the installation of the organ, the main addition to the church amenities has been the transformation of two rooms in the lower hall into an elegant, comfortable and friendly room, decorated and furnished by Mr. J.D.M. Weld in memory of his mother, Dorothy McLaurin (Mrs. W.E.) Weld. Easy of access, the Weld Room reflects the same gracious hospitality that Mrs. Weld extended to guests in her home.
The many changes that have taken place in our church building over 100 years, without destroying its unique identity, serve to illustrate the versatility and adaptability of the structure erected by our predecessors a century ago. As we look around our church today, we can see that it still has unused possibilities of service. One example is that large, third-story, empty organ chamber with enough space for a suite of several rooms. It should not surprise us if any day now some bright idea-ed person pushes up the trap door, climbs up, looks around and says, “This is just what we need!”