History of Byron United Church

History of Byron United Church

Part 1: Early Beginnings (1859-1919)

From humble beginnings as part of the North Street preaching circuit, to the corner of Boler Road and Byron Baseline, Byron United Church has always been a prominent institution in the Byron community for the past 160 years.

Byron and surrounding villages date back to the early 1800s when Archibald McMillan settled in Byron. Shortly after, Abram Patrick cut a road from Lambeth to Byron and slowly the village of “Hall’s Mills” began to establish local industries including a store, distillery, grist mill, cloth factory, carding mill and tannery built by Charles Hall.

The earliest evidence of Methodist Christians in Byron dates back to 1859. The village was renamed “Byron” by Sir Henry Niles after a village close to London, England. The population stood at 200. On a dusty road following the Thames River, a small group of Methodists met in the school, S.S. Westminster, later S.S. 5 Byron. St. Anne’s holds the distinction of being the first church, as well as one of the oldest buildings in Byron built between 1853 and 1855. It was built on one- eighth of an acre purchased for eight pounds fifteen shillings. St Anne’s was used by many congregations including the Methodists and is currently the home of St. Anne’s Anglican Church. 1874 saw the first union with the Methodist Church between the New Connection and the Wesleyan Methodists which became part of the old North Street Circuit. Then in 1883, the Byron Methodist Church of Canada was formed, and hopes were raised for erecting a new church building in Byron. “Why cannot this congregation have a church of its own”, declared G. W Henderson at a tea meeting in 1885. Land valued at $100 was donated by Ep. Elwood on the north side of Commissioners Rd. W, one block west of Boler. The financial challenge appeared formidable considering the average daily wage at the time was 50 cents. However amounts of $50 were subscribed by members and friends (some from London), and the white brick church was built for $1600. (The current site of “starbucks”.)

The new church was officially opened on October 16, 1885 and a shed was built across the full length of the back lot to accommodate the horses and buggies of the congregation. On December 28, 1889 the last payment on the mortgage of $800 was made, thus setting a fine example of financial responsibility for the future generations.

The first minister of the new church was Rev. Edwin Holmes. In 1911 a new set of windows was installed in the church including the Good Shepherd window, a memorial to the late Robert Sissons. This window now holds a prominent position in the chancel of our current church providing a significant link to our early ancestors. An important event in the life of the church took place in 1919, when the six- point North Circuit was divided and became the Byron Circuit and Westminster West Circuit, incorporating three churches each. Our sister churches in the new circuit were Sharon and Glendale. The logical location for the new parsonage was on the corner of Commissioners and Boler, the former blacksmith shop which was later sold to the Bank of Montreal.

Byron United Church was now well established in the community.

References: “160 Years of Westminster, Halls Mills, Byron History”- Compiled by Roy Kerr, 1983 “History of Byron United Church”-Compiled for the Diamond Jubilee, Sept. 1945 by Rev. L.C. Harvey and Mr. Eli Davis 2. Serving the Community 3. The War Years 4. A New Building 5. Bursting at the Seams 6. Roots and Wings 7. Renewal 8. Today 9. Vision for the Future

Part II: Serving the Community (1914-1945)

Rev. Edwin Holmes, interested in advancing the spiritual welfare of the community, appointed Samuel Sissons as the first Sunday School superintendent while his daughter Etta, who had the only piano in the community, became the first organist.  Mr. Cassady became superintendent for a period of eighteen years, followed in succession by, T. J. Foster and Leslie Griffeth, Eli Davis, Mr. Czar Wilson and Charles Bycroft.

In 1914 Mrs. F. H. Crowe, a local public school teacher, organized and taught the first Teacher Training classproviding the Sunday School with a steady supply of trained teachers.  
                              The first teacher graduating class 1916.

Under the leadership of Miss Mary Jackson in 1920, the Adult Bible class built two classrooms at the north end of the church building. These were taken down in 1930 with the addition of a basement with a new furnace, an upstairs auditorium and six classrooms housing a thriving Primary and Junior S.S. department at a cost significantly more than the original building!  With the creation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, the congregation became known as Byron United Church.

Many different organizations were formed to provide aid to the community and church. With the help of Rev.  James E. Ford, the ladies of the congregation organized the Ladies’ Aid Society, later known as the Women’s Association, who assisted the minister with visiting the sick, helping the needy in the community and helping care for the church. For example the old church housed some families affected by the Thames River flood of 1937.

 Thus began the strong involvement of women in our congregation still evident today. Rev. Ford also organized The Epworth League, later known as the Young People’s Union, providing opportunities for the youth of the congregation to meet. The Women’s Missionary Society was established in 1922. The Auxiliary sponsored a very active Mission Band and C.G.I.T. Their slogan was, “Pray, Study, Give”. Another organization prominent in the community was the 29th Scout Group made up of Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Brownies and Cubs. They were jointly sponsored by St. Anne’s Anglican Church and Byron United Church. Many served in the war and five members gave their lives for King and Country.

By 1945, our 60th, anniversary, the congregation stood at sixty- five families and one hundred and twenty members serving a village of 450 people.

Part III: The War Years (1919-1945)

 Like other communities across Canada, Byron was no different in the tragic loss of those who gave their unfinished lives. Although the church honour role was quite brief, “We are left to wonder to what heights and glories those young unfinished lives, might have risen if life had dealt with them somewhat more generously.”  (2008 Remembrance Day quote by John May, veteran). Lost during the first World War, 1914-1918 was George White.

 An Honour Roll Plaque in our church lists the names of 39 brave young servicemen who went from this congregation to serve king and country. Six of them gave up their lives.

 Vernon and Jack Smith, sons of Florence Smith, lived at the corner of Commissioners Rd. and Stephen St.. Veron was killed in 1942 at the age of 26 and was buried in the Canadian Military Cemetery in Nymegen, Holland. John enlisted in the R.A.F. as a wireless operator/gunner and was killed on October 31st, 1942 when his bomber crashed near Gendringer, Holland. Both brothers were active members of Byron United Church Sunday School and youth organizations and attended school in Byron and London.

The baptismal font at the front of the church was donated by Florence Smith in memory of her two sons and dedicated January 15th, 1956.

 Jack and Jerry Bowern were twin sons of Milton and Elizabeth Bowren of Springbank Ave. They attended Byron Public School and Beal Tech before enlisting in the R.C.A.F. in January, 1940 and joined the Linclon and Welland  Regiment in 1943. Jack was killed on August 26, 1944 while forcing a bridgehead across the Siene River. Jerry attended his brother’s funeral on the 27th. Tragically the next day Jerry was killed after the crossing had been established. Both were 20 years of age.

 Edmund Jeffery Jones, the son of Mr. and Mrs. E.G. Jones also of Springbank Ave., also attended Byron Public School and Beal Tech, but later transferred to Central Collegiate. He enlisted in the R.C.A. F. in January, 1940 and was posted to the R.A. F. base at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, England. He was killed on December 21st, 1942 when his Halifax bomber was shot down during a raid on Krefeld, Germany. He was 21 years old.

 William Henry Semple was one of five sons and a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Semple of Byron. He joined the Canadian Signal Corps on the first day of the war and proceeded overseas in December 1939. He lost his life on July 5th, 1943 when his ship was torpedoed off the coast of Africa at age 24. His four brothers served in England and Italy and his sister served in Canada with the C.W.R.C.

We honour these young people who served during the great wars so that we might have freedom and peace. In our hearts and in our memory, they live on and are forever young.

 Reference:  From notes and newspaper clippings collected by Vetran John (Jack May)

Part IV: A New Building (1945-1956)

 In September of 1935, the church celebrated our 50th Anniversary with special services of thanksgiving. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cassady were the only original members still alive. Mrs. Joseph Cassady served as secretary of the Ladies Aid Society for 37 years. 

 Following the wars, the Sunday school grew from 167 children in 1949 to 275 by 1952. Pictures of Sunday school classes of the times show large groups of Sunday school children meeting in the kitchen and furnace room as well as the six Sunday School classrooms. Classes were even held in cars in the parking lot! The officials of the church were challenged to look ahead to provide church expansion for the present United Church and the future needs.

Other considerations taken into account were the time of the late service and the need for a full time minister. The evening service as part of the three- point charge had served us well, but with the improvement of the highway and transportation system, rural and urban centers demanded changes. Action by the Middlesex Presbytery in 1952 placed Byron United Church as a self-supporting, single-point Charge with a full-time minister and a morning service. The need for more and better accommodation meant either enlarging the current site or building a new church.

  Under the enthusiastic leadership of newly appointed,  Rev. Arthur J.Mckaye, a congregational meeting was held on November 11th, 1951, and the proposal to build a new church was officially sanctioned. The current site at Boler and Baseline was purchased from the Canadian Government for $700. Despite much trepidation, 205 individual members pledged $85,000 over a three year period. Credit must be given to Rev. Mckaye and Mr. Chitty for originating the feeling of unity and strength that continue to exist in our church today.

However, tragedy struck on November 3, 1953 when Rev. Mckaye passed away after a brief illness. In the interim, Rev. George Oliver was appointed minister, while Dr. W.E. MacNiven was engaged as the pulpit supply. Rev. C.G. Park was called as minister on July 1st, 1954 taking on the role to continue the building project to a successful conclusion. At the end of the three year pledge period, there was a shortfall of $15,000, however by 1956, through special gifts, the congregation was able to meet their goal. A building committee including N.T. Sanderson, A.J. Watt, David Sanderson, R.W. Pawley, Walter Davis and John Millman developed plans to meet the immediate needs of the congregation. Although accommodation of the Sunday School was a prime consideration, funding of a young people’s gymnasium and church school accommodation would have to wait. Mr. John McGee was employed to serve as the architect and Quinney Construction Co., a local Byron Builder, was given the contract to build the new church.

 A unique sod turning ceremony took place on Sunday, April 17th, 1955 when the oldest member, Thomas J. Foster and the youngest member, his grandson Munro Foster turned the first sod together. On June 27th, 1955 a number of prominent church members placed the corner stone which contained among other items; History of the first 60 years of church life, building fund pledges, the Centennial year Free Press and a wooden nickel! One of the participants was Mr. Thomas Foster who had been present at the dedication of the old church 70 years previous. The congregation watched with fascination as the dream of a new place of worship slowly became a reality.

 The last service in the old building was held on Sunday, January 7th, 1956 and a week later the Memorial gifts and prized possessions were moved over to the new location. Some of the wood from the old church was used to make the current Hymn boards and Sunday School lectern. The inaugural service of dedication was held on Sunday, January 14th, 1956 with Rev. George Moore, Chairman of Middlesex Presbytery officiating with assistance from Mr. Robert Pawley, Mr. George Bycroft and Mr. William McNiece.  During the service of dedication, Rev. Clifford Park stated, “God has placed us in a fruitful corner of His vineyard; a challenging task awaits us; but shoulder to shoulder, and with exultant hearts, we march breast-forward, confident that ‘we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” The dream had become a reality.           


V. Bursting at the Seems (1956-1990)

“As our fathers built for us, so we must now build for ourselves, our children, and others.”  With the new building complete, the congregation was set to worship in their own church in an atmosphere where God was present.  The first Communion Service and reception of new members was held on Sunday, February 5, 1956.

 The old church was sold in 1958 for $10,500.00 with the sum applied to reduction of the loan.

 Despite having two services, the sanctuary was filling up, so the balcony floor was built up, carpeted, and the pews brought up from the old church. The original plan had stressed the need for a gymnasium and Christian Education Wing. This need was becoming critical as the Sunday School enrollment mushroomed to over 500 children, which may have been the largest in Middlesex Presbytery. So a committee was appointed in 1959, to determine the needs and visit other local churches where Christian education centres had been built. The construction was financed by a loan from the Bank of Montreal for $108,000 and the Corner Stone Laying service was held on October 18, 1959 with personnel  from the Sunday School and mid-week organizations taking part. A canister containing a list of Sunday School teachers and officers, attendance data, a London Free Press, and coins of the realm was placed in the corner stone. The new building was designed for multiple use with the Hall and Classrooms in service for two sessions each Sunday morning at 9:30 am and 11:00 am as well as improved facilities for mid-week organizations.