The red brick Heritage building located at the corner of Douglas and Broughton streets in downtown Victoria was built in 1889. It has been the home of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and a venue for many public events during its history. The congregation has established an endowment fund at the Victoria Foundation for the purposes of the restoration, maintenance and preservation of the Heritage building. In this guest blog, the Rev. Jeremy Bellsmith shares the story of the long history of the church in our community.
For 150 years, the people of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church have been nurturing community, compassion and creativity in the heart of Victoria. And they’re making plans to continue doing so for many years to come.
From their first meetings in Moore’s Hall on Government Street, Presbyterians were concerned with creating community. Back then, most Europeans were some stripe of Christian and many in Victoria were from the British Isles. Early Presbyterianism in the city was geared towards immigrants from Scotland and Ireland who had shared that stream of Christianity in the old world. As with many immigrant peoples, the church formed a bridge with their lives across the pond. It gave much needed roots and a sense of belonging in a world where everything else was new.
Citizens like Alexander Munro, the Rogers Family (Rogers Chocolates), the Dunsmuir family (Craigdarroch Castle) and John Robson (the ninth premier of B.C.) have all called St. Andrew’s home. Robert Burns McMicking, who brought telephones and lights to Victoria, and Hermann OttoTiedemann, designer of the Provincial courthouse were other leading residents who found community at St. Andrew’s. As the city grew, so did St. Andrew’s, connecting immigrants with each other through picnics, soirées and Sunday services. These created a sense of belonging. Cubs, Scouts and other community groups were sponsored by the congregation, emerging from this priority on building a sense of community and connection.
The experience of community led to compassion as the people of St. Andrew’s became concerned with other immigrants who weren’t sharing the same experience. As suburbs and communities grew around Victoria, and up island, so did the number of congregations St. Andrew’s founded.
Their outreach was particularly focused on children. Many of those new suburbs and villages had few to no services for children, so the people of St. Andrew’s sent teams to run kids’ programs. Their efforts weren’t limited to Western Europeans. One of the oldest communities for Cantonese speaking people was sponsored by St. Andrew’s, giving a home to Chinese immigrants who wanted to worship in their own language. When Russia invaded Hungary in the 1950’s, the people of St. Andrew’s opened their doors and hearts to the refugees. When people from the deaf community wanted to worship together, the people of St. Andrew’s were pleased to host them. As the years passed, compassion took other forms, including operating a soup kitchen, and partnering with other faith groups to ensure the needs of the most vulnerable were being met.
From the very start, creativity has infused the life of the congregation. In a time when many congregations debated whether to include an organ in worship, St. Andrew’s became home to one of the first pipe organs installed in Western Canada, a trend that would become normative. The organ arrived badly damaged after its journey around Cape Horn from the builder in Eastern Canada. This prompted the creation of a fund to and raising money so repairs could be completed prior to its installation. In a time when the music of worship was shifting from a single voiced cantor leading the congregation in singing psalms, the St. Andrew’s congregation wasted no time in starting a choir. The musical life of St. Andrew’s would impact the arts scene in Victoria. George Burnett had a long career shaping the musical minds of Victoria’s students, in addition to accompanying the congregation at St. Andrew’s. Annual concerts, which drew some of the most talented artists in the city, drew crowds. Annual soirées were a highlight on the social calendar.
As the city has grown and changed, so has the congregation. There are many ways to be spiritual these days, and the people of St. Andrew’s are still nurturing community, compassion and the arts.
Now people from around the world connect at St. Andrew’s. In any given week, you find people of West Indian, Dutch, Korean, Taiwanese, South African and Kenyan ancestry finding community in the congregation. In addition to worship every Sunday, we meet at picnics and community meals. This value extends outside the congregation as recovery groups find support daily, and many other community-building groups meet within the congregation’s facility.
Compassion still moves the congregation. Each month the congregation serves a hot breakfast, with over 4,000 people receiving a nutritious meal each year. When added to the breakfasts provided within the congregation’s facility by Christ Church Cathedral and BC Ferries, that number swells to over 10,000 people fed. The congregation provides scores of turkeys for Our Place’s Christmas Dinner and care packages for over 50 of its residents. St. Andrew’s is pleased to host Out of the Rain, a safe place for teens to stay warm and get a meal during the winter months.
Creative arts continue too. Each month, we open the doors and invite passersby to enjoy a lunchtime recital. The acoustics of the worship space make it an ideal venue for many concerts, including the annual St. Andrew’s Christmas Carol sing. Last year one person commented, “I don’t feel Christmas has begun until we’ve come here to sing.” A children’s choir has been started under the very capable leadership of our music director, Sandra Fletcher. Perhaps it’s no wonder that groups like Ballet Victoria are partnering with St. Andrew’s.
The last 150 years have brought many changes but St. Andrew’s has always remained devoted to the well-being of Victoria’s residents. Some changes have brought challenges, and the people of St. Andrew’s are thinking creatively about how to ensure that we can continue to serve this great city. It’s our prayer that our children’s children will be connecting, showing compassion and getting creative for at least another 150 years.
For more information about St. Andrew’s history visit: https://web.uvic.ca/vv/student/st_andrews/index.php
Jeremy Bellsmith is the lead minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in the heart of Victoria.