This week’s Historic St. Marys photograph, taken in the mid-1890s, shows the choir and organ of Knox Presbyterian Church, once located on Church Street South where the Knox apartments are today. This congregation was formed in the late 1870s following a schism with the parent Presbyterian Church on Widder Street. At that time, Presbyterians were just beginning to accept instrumental music in their churches. Knox members considered themselves progressive and, when they opened a church building of their own in 1880, an important feature was an organ.
In 1891 — not a dozen years after its opening — Knox Church was heavily damaged by fire and had to be rebuilt, the congregation deciding on a similar, although less ornate, exterior. This photograph was, therefore, taken inside the second Knox Church. It shows the pulpit in the centre of the west wall, between the choir loft and the congregation. The Reverend Alexander Grant, much-loved and long-serving minister of Knox Church, is seated in the pulpit chair, immediately recognizable by his handsome, white hair. The organ’s façade pipes, while not as impressive in number as those in the Methodist Church across the street, were also beautifully painted and stencilled.
The members of the choir did not wear gowns but were in their good Sunday suits or dresses. The women all wore hats, even the organist, Miss Eugenia (Birdie) Sparks. The young boy standing at the back to the right of the organ has been identified as Arthur Johnston. He had a very important role: he was the organ pumper. Without Arthur working the bellows to fill the wind chest, this organ would have been silent. Eventually, as part of the commemoration of the congregation’s 25th anniversary, a new electric organ was installed in October, 1904. From then on, the organ pumper no longer had a job.
Then disaster struck. One Sunday morning in February, 1905, fire broke out in the church again, even more damaging than the fire in 1891. Within an hour, the church was gutted, the roof had collapsed and all contents were destroyed, including the new organ. The resilient congregation rebuilt once more, this time from the foundation up, using red brick with limestone accents. Inside, a new floor plan placed the pulpit and choir loft in the northwest corner with the pews arranged in a semi-circular fashion facing in that direction. A new balcony further increased the seating capacity.
Knox Church stood in place for the next six decades until the two Presbyterian congregations finally joined and the Widder Street church was selected as the permanent home. How this difficult decision was made is a much longer story.