St. George’s Anglican Church, Haliburton:
Heart and Soul of a Community
By Leopoldina Dobrzensky
150 years ago, the sound of axes rang through the deep seclusion of the virgin forest, where solitude had reigned for centuries.
On May 9, 1864, an agreement between the Crown and The Canadian Land and Emigration Company of London, England was reached and the planned agricultural settlement of Dysart began. Terms for buyers stipulated there be one bona fide settler for every 200 acres of land. Ten acres were to be cleared and planted in crops for every 100 acres, and a house built, at least 16 by 20 feet, for every 200 acres.
On December 8 during the sawmill’s opening, Mr. C.R. Stewart, the company’s agent, briefed the 27 first settlers on the Land Company’s progress. A road was being built to link the Bobcaygeon and Peterson colonization roads, which would reach the projected village of Haliburton in 1865 and make transportation a little easier.
A 16-by-24-foot log building, the first St. George’s Anglican Church, had just been constructed on company land on a beautiful site, between the road in progress and Head Lake. Two hundred acres were set aside on the north shore of the lake, where the congregation planned to build a parsonage at a later date. The company was prepared to contribute 50 pounds toward the support of a clergyman, and offered the storekeeper’s house on Lot 1 Concession V as a residence to a prospective incumbent.
John Strachan, Lord Bishop of Toronto, was sending the Rev. Sandars to the “remote Township of Dysart” to open the church for service on Christmas Day. A few days before, heavy snowstorms blanketed the province and so postponed the opening until January 1, 1865. To complete the journey, which he undertook on behalf of the mission church, the Rev. Sandars held two meetings with Anglican residents at Gull River settlements in Minden and Stanhope. All were anxious to obtain church services and willing to contribute to the support of a clergyman.
In his report, the parson expressed the hope that the board would overcome its “usual complacency” toward remote portions of the diocese and send a clergyman as soon as possible. He also suggested the following schedule of services: every alternate Sunday morning in Minden, with an afternoon service in Stanhope; on the other Sunday, services in Dysart. The proposed residence, 5.5 miles south of Haliburton and within 12.5 miles of the Minden schoolhouse where services were held, seemed the ideal solution to Sandars, but not to the Rev. Frederick Burt, the clergyman from Huntingdon, Quebec appointed to the incumbency. In July 1865, the company’s agent went down the lakes to meet the parson. Mr. Burt gave his first service on Sunday July 23.
The Burts stayed in the Company House for less than four months during which the Anglican minister also taught the settlers’ children at his residence. Sometime in November 1865, the couple moved to Minden, where the Rev. Burt established St. Paul’s Church and served as minister until 1877. St. George’s congregation then had to wait until 1869 for another resident clergyman.
First services were read by surveyor Miles, while Dr. Peake, a surgeon just out of England, led the choir with an accordion, mounted on a little frame and worked with a treadle. The doctor could only play two tunes: the Evening Hymn and the March of the Men of Harlech, and both were utilized in a rather miscellaneous manner. However, the services were altogether satisfactory and attended by settlers of all denominations and creeds. A Sunday school was opened at an early period. Before the arrival of a permanent clergyman and during the summer months, student ministers performed services at St. George’s. (1)
Considering the hardship most settlers had to endure, in the very early years they still managed to find some extra cash to help support missionaries, widows and orphans.
In 1869, an incumbency of the Church of England in Haliburton was finally and permanently established. The Reverend Gaden Crawford MacKenzie and his family arrived in March that year. The Land Company, which paid half of his stipend, provided the parson with a residence. A year later, a building boom allowed him to build a new church in Haliburton.
Designed by Peterborough architect and engineer J.E. Belcher (who drew the plans free of charge) parishioner and carpenter Henry Wesley became the contractor for the new Gothic style church. Wesley built the frame structure, a model of craftsmanship, for $700.00—even then considered a low price.
Mrs. Haliburton, widow of the judge after whom the village is named, presented the church with a cabinet organ and promised to send a bell. The Rev. Mackenzie was able to secure so many donations from outside sources that the church and furnishings were entirely paid for. The Dysart congregation could then enjoy its new place of worship for half a century without having to worry about fund raising.
Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the beloved building on the morning of January 25, 1920. (2) The present church, a brick structure similar in design, opened its doors October 23, 1923.
A brick parsonage was added in 1899. It was built by carpenter William Prust, a warden and auditor at St George’s who later moved to Toronto, where he became a popular builder.
In the 1870s, the Haliburton congregation grew in size, and a mission point of St. George’s for West Dysart, the Church of the Ascension, was established. It was built on land donated by U.S.-born John Strain on the Haliburton Road South. The church had a large congregation and sent its own delegate to the synod. It burnt down, sometime in the 1920s or 30s and today, no trace of it remains.
From the earliest days until now, St. George’s has been noted for exceptional hospitality. In the early years, Christmas parties featured coveted toys for each child. Good music with an outstanding choir, many community and charitable activities—and of course the famous annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper—have long been hallmarks of St. George's.
For these and many other activities over its 150 years, the church has truly been the heart and soul of Haliburton.
©Leopolda z L. Dobrzensky
1 H.R. Cummings, "Early Days in Haliburton"
2 Nila Reynolds, "In Quest of Yesterday"