This week’s photograph, more than a century old, shows the interior of the St. Marys Methodist Church (now the United Church). It was taken in 1907 to mark the installation of a new church organ and to showcase the magnificent façade pipes with their original stencilled designs, grouped within three domed arches and providing a rich background for the pulpit and choir pews.
The organ was built by Casavant Frères of Montreal, a company founded in 1879 that had quickly become famous for the excellence of their instruments. The acquisition of such an organ was remarkably ambitious in a community the size of St. Marys even for the prosperous Methodist congregation, supported by many of the town’s businessmen.
When the impressive, white brick church was built in 1879, the entrance doors were on the west and the auditorium faced east with a balcony across the west end. In 1886, a two-manual pipe organ was installed in the east end of the church, emphasizing that orientation. However, a decade later, the interior of the church was redesigned by David Baxter, a Stratford architect, with the pews reconfigured into a theatre-style, semi-circular arrangement, facing south with the pulpit as the focal point. This layout meant that everyone in the pews directly faced the preacher. The redesign included opening the south wall to create the arches, accommodating in this space the organ’s windchest with pipes, the console, the pulpit and the communion table in order from the south wall north toward the auditorium.
When the Casavant organ was installed in 1907, to accommodate additional pipes and three new windchests, the space between the church and the Sunday School wing to the south was completely filled with behind-the-scenes workings. In this photograph, the console has been placed below the pulpit to give the organist the best acoustical sense of the choir and the instrument. In the years since 1907, the original Casavant console has been replaced twice, the organ upgraded many times and the console and choir loft repositioned to appropriate advantage.
Music has always been a highly important part of this congregation’s worship traditions. Today’s United Church still has a wonderful concert organ and a disciplined choir that takes practice and performance very seriously. This Sunday afternoon, Dec. 21, starting at 3 p.m., everyone has the opportunity to hear both organ and choir in the annual service of Lessons and Carols. For many who attend it regularly, this event marks the true start of Christmas celebrations.
The photograph was donated to the St. Marys Museum by the late Ruth Dunsford whose parents, Dr. and Mrs. L.L. Follick, were long-standing choir members — as was Ruth and, later, her daughters. Details about the history of the Methodist Church organs were provided by Larry Pfaff.