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Chapter 1: 1925 - 1950

A New Church Congregation

By the summer of 1924, it was certain that the Presbyterian Church in Canada was about to lose congregations and over 60% of its membership to the United Church of Canada. A new denomination was to be officially established by an Act of the Parliament of Canada effective January 1, 1925. By the fall of 1924, six elders of Knox Presbyterian Church, bitterly opposed to the new denomination, and determined to preserve a Presbyterian presence in south London, had decided on a course of action. These men, namely C. J. Farr, W. D. Love, Charles Baker, Charles Mitchell, W. A. Duncan, and H. E. Westland resigned from the Kirk Session of Knox early in January, 1925.

Within 2 weeks of Knox becoming a United Church, Charles Baker convened a meeting at his home. The date was January 12, 1925 and 17 persons were in attendance. They resolved that a new Presbyterian congregation should be established and convened a second meeting to enlist support and determine a plan of action.

On February 16, 1925, some 40 persons met at Wortley Road School, pledged their support and appointed a committee to locate and purchase a suitable property. The Leys estate at 111 Elmwood Avenue was chosen and was bought for $13,000. Records on hand do not indicate specifically how funds for this purchase were assembled. A mortgage was obtained but also a cash sum was raised by subscription. It was reported recently by a charter member, still in London, that some of the elders and possibly others mortgaged their own properties to raise money for the down payment on the purchase. An aside regarding the name Leys is that in 1883, F. B. Leys, a retired army colonel, was instrumental in convincing the Presbytery of London to establish a mission church in south London. The site at the corner of Wortley Road and Bruce Street was chosen and a building erected, thus Knox Presbyterian Church came into being. Colonel Leys' estate was eventually sold to a Mr. Frank Sloan and it was from Mr. Sloan that the committee acting for the new Elmwood congregation in 1925 bought the property. In any event the 1927 financial statement shows that the property was fully paid for within two years.

The six Elders had no doubts whatsoever that they remained Elders of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and thus could request of the Presbytery that they constitute a Kirk Session. Their faith and determination demonstrated from the beginning, continued for several years as they gave leadership in many ways within the new congregation.

The first morning and evening services were held in Victoria School on March 22, 1925. On the afternoon of that same day, a dedication service was held at what came to be known as the church home at 111 Elmwood Avenue. From the 1925 history:

"The congregation crowded into the new property on Elmwood Avenue, jamming every room and standing on the stairways to hear the Rev. James MacKay of New St. James Church formally dedicate their new church home. Immediately after the dedication service, 50 children who had gathered for Sunday School were provided with teachers and assigned to classes. In the evening most of the people hurried back to Victoria School for another service conducted by the Rev. J. M. MacGillivary, of Knox Church in St. Thomas. The guest preacher in the morning and afternoon had been the Rev. T. Banks Nelson of Knox Church, Hamilton, a fiery exponent of continuing Presbyterianism."

The congregation grew rapidly with members from uptown and Presbyterians in South London who were affected by the enthusiasm and the continuance of Presbyterianism in their midst. The Kirk Session and the congregation by September had decided to call the Rev. F. W. Gilmour of Atwood as their first minister. Again the church home was crowded for his induction. The first Communion, on Nov. 9, was attended by 161 persons whose names are recorded as the charter members of Elmwood Avenue Presbyterian Church. In addition there were approximately 50 persons who were not formally members of the congregation. Thus the Elmwood congregation was launched and in full operation within 11 months of church union.

No information has been found regarding the selection of the name for the new congregation, Elmwood Avenue Presbyterian Church.

A Word On Church Union

A word on church union should provide a backdrop for the actions just described and illustrate further the strength of purpose and determination of the founders of the new church.

The movement toward church union can be traced at least back to 1902 when delegates from General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada attended the General Council of the Methodist Church. Delegates had been exchanged previously, but in 1902 both national conferences were in Winnipeg. The speeches, especially by the visiting delegates, dealt with such matters as similarities between the denominations, the need for substantial resources and work in the newly settled Western Provinces to "fight materialism", and the fact that the time had come for "a great national church for Canada". Three short speeches, according to John Moir in his book Enduring Witness "moved the conference to a point of establishing a committee for organic union". Moir adds, "with historic results for Canada and Presbyterianism".

For many leaders within the Christian Church as a whole, the dream of one great church came alive. Within months the Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists as well appointed study committees. The 85 persons who formed these groups became the joint committee on church union in 1904. What followed was 20 years of oftentimes bitter wrangling and the most strenuous negotiations. The struggle was most vigorous within the Presbyterian Church in Canada because of what many clergy and laymen saw as substantial differences in the theological doctrinal bases and church polity between the Methodist and the Presbyterian Churches.

Moir refers to the "paper wars" a deluge of essays, articles and pamphlets written and distributed by unionists and non-unionists alike, many of which were at least non-Christian in their attitude and often bordering on defamation of character. This, notwithstanding the fact that on two occasions votes of the membership of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, favoured union. These votes, however, were on the principle of union and the basis of union. When the actual terms of union were put before the church at the General Assembly in 1923, disputes involving legal action, Court challenges and deep splits in congregations commenced. Nonetheless, provincial legislatures and the parliament of Canada passed the necessary bills and the United Church of Canada was formed.

Apart from the strenuous debates over the niceties of theological doctrinal and political issues, the crunch came when the concrete proposals included the whole church joining the union with dissenting congregations and dissenting members more or less left to fend for themselves. The prospect was of the Presbyterian Church in Canada gradually falling out of existence, but that was not to be, in the minds of the strong and vigorous leadership of the anti-unionists. In the struggle which followed, the Presbyterian Church in Canada was badly bruised but not eliminated. Although Knox College was conceded before 1925 and Theological College, Montreal, in 1926, the Presbyterian Church at least had its seminaries intact, but wrangling about other assets and especially endowments continued for 10 years. As Moir says, "We won some and lost some."

The six elders who took first steps to form a new congregation in South London thus were highly aware of what had been going on for years. One can imagine that long before that eventful meeting of January 12, 1925, they had formed their plans for continuing Presbyterianism in South London.

The New Church In Body And Spirit

In November 1925 the growth of the congregation was such that a decision was made to erect another building on the property at 111 Elmwood. The church home was only intended for the Sunday School and a home for the minister (second floor). As well the cost to Victoria School for Sunday was $20 per week. This sum could be put to better use. The first annual meeting of January 1926 approved the construction of a chapel which was subsequently dedicated as a church. The church was erected at a cost of $25,000. The project was managed by a building committee chaired by Archibald McDonald.

The London Free Press of April 23, 1926 tells of the next great day in the Elmwood story. That date is April 28th:

"Amid the cheers of a large gathering and through the great efforts of the Rev. James MacKay, Moderator-Elect of the London-Hamilton Synod, Rev. F. W. Gilmour, pastor of Elmwood Presbyterian Church and a horse and plough the ceremonial turning of the first sod of the new Elmwood Presbyterian Church/Chapel was accomplished last evening at 6:30.

"The ceremony was opened by singing of the hymn "All People that on Earth Do Dwell", which lent immediately an atmosphere of solemnity to the occasion.

"When the actual turning of the sod took place, however, shouts of encouragement to Mr. MacKay and Mr. Gilmour filled the air and arguments arose as to whether the furrow had been ploughed straight.

"After the sod turning, the assemblage that witnessed it went into the church hall and the Rev. T. D. MacGillivary, formerly of this city, but now of Kincardine, Rev. James MacKay, Dr. J. W. McNamara, Clerk of the Assembly, and Dr. S. Banks Nelson gave brief addresses."

On June 19, 1926 the cornerstone was laid as the newspaper again reports:
"Rev. A. J. MacGillivary, D.D., moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada officiated at the ceremony in connection with the laying of the cornerstone of the new Elmwood Avenue Church/Chapel on Saturday afternoon.

"Several hundred people were present to witness the ceremony, many of them being ministers of other denominations. The event was of more than ordinary interest since this is the first Presbyterian church to be erected by a minority group since union. During the service the Rev. T. J. Mitchell of Wortley Road Baptist Church gave the invocation, Rev. T. G. Wallace, Rector of St. James Anglican Church read the passage of scripture, and the Rev. John McNair, D.D. conducted the prayer."

The building progressed rapidly, and on October 27th, 1926 the new church was officially opened. The building committee comprised Archibald MacDonald, W. A. Reid, W. E. Duncan, Allan Aitken, W.D. Love, Charles Farr, Walter Kelly, Harman Westland, Rev. F. W. Gilmour and O.H. Gidley. However the occasion was saddened by the illness of Archibald MacDonald, whose death came shortly after the completion of the building. In 1928 all the organizations in the church joined together to donate the communion table in his memory.

Worthy of note in these beginning years was the support from clergy and laymen alike for the new congregation. The various ceremonies were officiated and conducted by prominent churchmen, both from London and afar, and not only from Presbyterian churches. The establishment of a new Presbyterian Church in South London was obviously important to a large segment of the community. It was significant to anyone with Presbyterian leanings, especially since it was reputed to be the first new congregation of continuing Presbyterians to be established after 1925. It is also worth noting that events at Elmwood at first and for several years after were reported extensively in the London Free Press. Likely other church news was covered as well. This contrasts with the present and more recent past when only the most spectacular events within the largest congregations or denominations get any attention. For example when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada met in London a few years ago with delegates from across Canada the Free Press coverage by any standard was minimal.

To Worship To Serve And To Witness

Elmwood began as a strong congregation with a relatively large membership and plenty of talented, dedicated and hard-working individuals within its midst. It continued to grow and develop during the next 25 years in spite of the challenges of such catastrophic events as the 1930's depression and the 1939-45 world war.

Membership in numbers during the first 25 years at Elmwood can best be described as relatively stable with fairly wide fluctuations at times. Records show that there were 161 members in November 1925. This number had doubled by 1930 and by 1935 the roll showed 348. In spite of removing 103 from the membership roll in 1941 the roll stood at 359 December 31, 1945, and 347 at December 31, 1950. It should be noted that during this period and until the 1980's the roll was a somewhat fluid entity. There were occasional reviews when the roll was "purged" of non-active members who were placed on a subsidiary list, sometimes known as the adherents list. This prevailed until a formal Annual Review process was introduced in 1987.

Membership numbers are only a part of the story. How a congregation comes together to worship, to serve and to foster fellowship and witness to the faith is the essence of its being. The new congregation at 111 Elmwood Avenue was in every respect a fully formed church within a very short time. Additional elders were chosen almost immediately to form a Kirk Session. Likewise, a Board of Managers was elected to begin work on matters pertaining to property and financing.

Worship services were held twice on Sunday from March, 1925, as was Sunday School on Sunday afternoons. Bible Study groups and mid-week services were also going on, but not continuously. This practice prevailed throughout the first period, with the exception that in 1935 Sunday School was held after morning service at 12:30 p.m.

A Young People's society was formed in 1925 and it became affiliated with Presbyterian Young People's Society, the National Young People's body. It usually met on Monday evenings. The ladies of the congregation lost no time in forming a chapter of the W.M.S. - Women's Missionary Society, and within the first year, 1925, it contributed just over $100 to the Women's Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The Gilmour Evening Auxiliary, W.M.S. was formed in 1926 to accommodate younger women, who for various reasons could not go to meetings in the afternoon. The Women's Association was also formed in 1925. The W.A. played a significant part in fundraising to provide furnishings for the new buildings and contribute to mortgage and other payments.

The new congregation was fortunate in the leadership within its numbers, a most necessary element in the structure. Whether the quality of leadership and willingness to work "for the church" was exceptional at Elmwood is impossible to determine, but there is no doubt that it was outstanding and an important contributing factor to the strength of the congregation. Throughout the 1930's and 1940's church attendance and participation was high from all quarters of society; so likely most congregations had strong support. Elmwood benefited greatly from the dedication and talents of many men and women as it has throughout its 75 year history.

Property and Finance

A significant piece of the story of Elmwood is the acquisition, furnishing and maintenance of the property at 111 Elmwood. During the first period, and indeed, throughout the 75 year history of Elmwood Avenue Church, an enormous amount of time, work and money has been spent on maintaining, enlarging and refurbishing the church home and the church building.

From 1925 to 1935, apart from the original purchase and erection of the church, furnishing and equipment was the main concern. From folding chairs in 1926, to the first organ in 1928, a custom-made Communion Table in 1928 and a Baptismal Font a few years later, the property was adequately equipped for worship and the other activities which took place.

Included on the second floor of the house were the living quarters for the minister and his family. The first manse was bought in 1950 at 403 McKenzie Avenue.

A feature of the property which gave much pleasure to the congregation and the surrounding neighbourhood was the garden at the rear of the property. A lifelong resident of South London who lived behind the church on Duchess Street as a child, has pleasant memories of play times and picnics in the park-like setting. Present members of the congregation also may remember the stately trees and beautiful flower beds. The garden was well-tended over the years until in the 1950's it had to be given up for space for the new Christian Education wing and a parking lot. Thus the garden parties, baseball games, and fireworks on the 24th of May could no longer be held at Elmwood.

Financing of the church in the beginning, and as it evolved, during the first 25 years, is another story of faith, dedication and hard work. The commitment of the core of men and women who established the congregation to Presbyterianism and their determination to keep their brand of the Christian church alive in South London was demonstrated by the risks they took. Although details are lacking, some, as has already been mentioned, mortgaged their own property to raise capital for the building. Others gave substantially from modest incomes for ongoing operating expenses. Many, especially those members in women's organizations worked diligently and creatively to raise funds for congregational support. Within two years, Elmwood was committed to a capital debt of $38,000 for the property, including $25,000 for the new church, thus "paying off the mortgage" was a continuing preoccupation for the next 25 years. But within two years, $10,000 was paid off. One indication of the optimism of the new congregation was that when Rev. F. W. Gilmour began his ministry, his stipend for the first full year, 1926, was $2,500, a very respectable salary for the time. An indication of the harder times of the '30's, however, is that Dr. Gilmour asked in 1933 that his stipend be reduced by $200 per year, with the money saved going toward mortgage reduction. By 1938 the stipend was reduced to $800, but when the new minister, Rev. John Fleck was called, his first stipend was $1,250. It took ten years before the stipend again reached $2,000.

Receipts for the 1926 year were $4,525.26, with expenditures of $4,519.91, leaving a bank balance at the end of 1926 of $5.45. Of this figure $2,914.59 was congregational givings, the balance was "Other", including a donation of $500 from New St. James Presbyterian Church. Disbursements included the stipend of $2,500, and also a contribution to Missions (General Assembly Budget) of $110. It was interesting that during its first year of operation, Elmwood took part in the work of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

By 1930 there was a slight change in the financial picture. Receipts were $4,278.63, expenses, $4,718.59; a 10 % deficit appeared at year-end, but by that year the stipend was reduced to $2,300, and payments for organist and custodian were added: the organist $305, the custodian $470. Receipts show another donation of $250 from New St. James. In 1935 the picture was improved, in that receipts were $4,918 and expenses $4,917. The stipend was reduced to $1,800, but the organist and janitor gained over the five-year period. The organist received $520, and the janitor $480.

An indication of tight money throughout the 1930's is the financial situation in 1940. Receipts $4,542, expenses, $4,536. The stipend, which had reached a low of $1,250 in 1939, was increased to $1,500 in 1940 and a car allowance was added.

The figures for 1945 were very similar, but by 1950, the picture had changed appreciably. That year receipts and expenditures balanced out at $6,142. The stipend had risen to $2,400, the organist's salary was $680, and the janitor's, $720. Reflecting on the severe floods in Manitoba in 1997, it is interesting to note that an item in Disbursements in 1950 is for $104, for Manitoba Flood Relief.

While the figures indicate comparatively little variation, financially, until 1950, what they do not indicate is the impact of the depression of the 1930's and the war years. Increases in membership did not generate increases in income. If anything, except in a few instances, individual givings dropped.

During the first 25 years and until the early 1970's a membership list with givings for each individual member was compiled and attached to the Annual Financial Statement (Annual Report). These statements show that annual amounts over $100 were uncommon, and amounts under $50 were very common. What made financing viable, apart from members' support, was fundraising by the women's organizations. The W.M.S. and the W.A. in particular, transferred funds regularly to the general account and purchased several items of furniture and equipment which otherwise might not have been bought so readily.

Some present members, one who was on the Board of Managers in the late 1940's, remembers "passing the hat" on different occasions to gain cash for paying pressing bills. This is also referred to in the 1975 History. One particular incident is worth noting:

"Board Meetings took place in the kitchen of the church home. When it was time for the meeting to commence, Mr. Fleck's footsteps could be heard on the stairs. On one occasion, a Board Member found an excuse to hustle Mr. Fleck back upstairs. This gave the members of the Board time to pass the hat and collect enough money to pay the minister the amount needed to make up the regular monthly payment of his stipend. When Mr. Fleck again came downstairs it was possible to give him his pay."

A final item of interest concerning the finances is that in 1935 the first bequest was received. The sum of $3,600 was bequeathed to Elmwood Avenue Church from the estate of Bella Gibson. An item in the London Free Press describes the estate auction, and another notes the bequest. Subsequent Annual Financial Statements do not indicate how the money was spent. It may be assumed, however, that at least some of it went toward reducing the mortgage, since there was no endowment fund until the mid-1960's. Any special funds were held in the Trustees' Account.

Old South London

Let us mention the environment in which the new congregation began and was nurtured. By 1925 the area of London between the Thames River on the north, Wellington Road on the east, Wharncliffe Road on the west, and Emery Street on the south was generally known as South London. There was not much urban development west of Wharncliffe Road, nor south of Emery Street except for the fine residential blocks along Baseline Road and Highland Road (now Commissioners Road). Unlike some other sections of the city, South London has never been a separate village. It was part of rural Westminster Township until it was annexed. It was for many years regarded as a prime residential area. By 1925 it was easily accessible by three bridges across the Thames and a "beltline" streetcar service to and from downtown.

In 1925 the population of London was 64,274. It was generally regarded as Anglo-Saxon, economically self-sufficient, diverse in commercial and industrial enterprises and strongly interested in public health and educational institutions of high quality. Fred Landon, a University librarian writing in 1927, quoted from a report in the Dominion Statistician, "London is a microcosm of Canadian life, one of the most typical of Canadian cities, a community backed by a prosperous agriculture to which it sells and for which it manufactures, at the same time reaching out to the markets of the world. London is the commercial centre of Southwestern Ontario."

Known as a conservative town, somewhat isolated from the more distressing events of the time, London can, however, claim some progressive developments. In education, for example, quoting from F. A. Armstrong, The Forest City, "In 1921, London became the first city on the continent to provide education without any fees from Kindergarten to University level. Another first in Canada was the development of special education in the early 1930's, both for gifted students by means of "advancement classes", and slow learners by means of "opportunity classes". The University of Western Ontario, (formerly Western University of London) opened its new campus in 1923, becoming the third major university in Ontario. Its Medical School soon gained an international reputation.

There were three public schools, one separate school and one secondary school. Although there were merchants on Wharncliffe Road and Wellington Road, Wortley Road was a busy commercial street. Most of the residential dwellings were owner-occupied, and the one apartment building was the one next to the Elmwood property. A few members of the present congregation have remarked on the many gardens in the backyards all over the district. In particular, they spoke of vegetable gardens when "home grown" was largely the rule rather than the exception.

South London, in 1925 had one Anglican, two Methodist, one Presbyterian and one Roman Catholic church. After church union, three United Churches replaced Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, and the new Presbyterian Church, Elmwood, emerged.

Throughout the history of Elmwood Church, South London, now known as Old South, and surrounded by very large suburban developments on three sides, has retained a sense of identity. The congregation "belongs" in the community and has enjoyed cooperation in numerous inter-church activities over the years.