Our Story Begins

Tuesday, September 17, 1816: Laying the Cornerstone

“The corner-stone was laid in the presence of a large number of spectators by Lieutenant Governor Gore and the Reverend Dr. Strachan, the missionary for York, in a manner in keeping with the infant state of the parish. A hole was dug, and a bottle containing a medal and a halfpenny was placed in it, a rude and unpolished stone was used to cover it. The missionary preached to the people, who had seated themselves on boards and timbers collected near the site.”

History of Toronto and the County of York, Ontario. Toronto, 1885

By August 1817, the little frame chapel was complete, and was now the second church in the county of York. Its origins lay with the little group of worshippers who had met on Sunday afternoons in the parlour of Seneca Ketchum’s farmhouse on Yonge Street, ten miles north of King Street. Within a few years, however, the little community of York Mills felt the effects of war: the Harrisons, the Humberstones, the van Nostrands, the Camerons and the Kendricks all had family in war service. With the return of peace, earlier in 1815, the growing community meant services were now being held in the roughly-built schoolhouse on land which Seneca Ketchum had purchased from Thomas Mercer.

On a cold, rainy day that November, the Reverend Dr. John Strachan travelled up to York Mills to conduct a service at 3 o’clock. He found only two people present but the service and sermon were conducted as if the building had been packed full. Dr. Strachan agreed to hold a service every month. By end-March of the following year, an agreement was in place to build a church and burial ground at York Mills on about three acres of land donated by Joseph Shepard and his wife, Catherine.

Over that spring and summer, plans were developed for the new church to be built, fronting on Yonge Street, now Old Yonge Street. The land was cleared of underbrush and trees felled. Some of these original hand-squared timbers are preserved in the narthex of the later renovated St. John’s.

And so it was that St. John’s Anglican Church, York Mills, began in a village that grew up amidst mills and farms on the outskirts of Muddy York. It grew through the vision of Seneca Ketchum who gathered together his neighbours for Divine Worship. It grew through the generosity of Joseph and Catherine Shepard who gave part of their farm for their neighbourhood’s use as a church and churchyard. It grew through the hands of those who cleared the brush, felled the trees and those who fed and nourished the workers. It grew through the money donated by hard-working settlers in a new land, where money was scarce.

And now, nearly two centuries have passed since our St. John’s was founded here in York Mills. The Don River still runs through the village, crossing to the east side of Yonge Street where the Humberstones once had their pottery mill. The sides of the valley are still as steep as when the road had to wind up and down those steep sides. The sun still sets over the tower entrance and lands on the stones marking the resting places of many of those early founders.

Now, it is our turn to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of St. John’s. Click here for a list of events.

The Reverend Dr. Drew MacDonald, Rector & Penny Potter

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