St. George’s is one of those hidden gems of the countryside, close to the city, but yet completely removed from it. It is a beautiful yellow-brick church, standing beside a peaceful, lovingly-kept cemetery, surrounded by cornfields and maple bush, on Thirteen Mile Rd. northwest of Ilderton.
This parish, which celebrates its 180th anniversary next year, is still the home parish of the original founding families. Those families held ‘unofficial’ services together from the day they first settled in the area, and it was some years before they were able to build a church. The first ‘official’ service, with clergy, was recorded in 1822, when the Rev. Stewart travelled out from London to hold a service. He recorded a large congregation, and noted in his records that some families had walked as much as 16 miles to attend.
The original families, mostly from Cumberland and Northumberland, were died-in-the-wool Tories and stalwarts of the Church of England, and they continued to be so in their new land. They were farmers and stockmen, and had moved to Canada to provide better opportunities for their large families. In addition to their farming skills, these settlers were well-educated, and also extremely dedicated and capable musicians.
The land they settled on, northwest of London, provided plenty of timber and good soil, as well as abundant fresh water. As they worked on taming the wilderness and establishing their farms, they set aside a corner of land on which they intended to build a church. The land adjacent to it was designated as their graveyard, and they began burying their dead there some years before the place of worship was built.
We sometimes jokingly refer to our church as St. George’s-in-the-Cornfields, but it might be more accurate to refer to it as St. George’s-by-the-Spring. Very close to the present church, there is a freshwater spring bubbling up through the ground, and people still come to collect its sweet-tasting water. Unfortunately, thanks to a myriad health regulation requirements, that delicious spring water doesn’t taste the same when it comes from the taps inside the building!
The presence of the spring had an unanticipated benefit in later years as well. Because the water level in the ground is very high, the church had to be built without a basement. Typical church architecture of the day called for a tiny, low-ceilinged parish hall in the basement of the church, accessed by steep stairs. St. George’s, however, has always had its parish hall above ground. The first hall was built onto the church some years after it was built, and a couple of decades ago it was extensively enlarged to include updated nursery, classroom, kitchen and washroom facilities, around a large gathering space. Unlike most older churches, the St. George’s parish hall is high-ceilinged, bright, spacious, airy, and completely accessible.
The first church, which opened in 1841, was a mission church, which meant that the clergy were paid by missionary societies in England. By 1860 the congregation was secure enough to become completely self-supporting, and they replaced their temporary church with the current building just a few years later. The second phase of the building was undertaken in 1895, when the new brick buildings was extended to accommodate a larger congregation and choir.
The latest renovation to the building, reflecting changes in worship style, happened a few years ago, when the choir pews were moved out of the chancel, enlarging the space around the altar. A few years before that, in celebration of the 150th anniversary, all of the remaining unadorned windows were replaced with beautiful stained glass, so that now every window, even the one hidden away in the sacristy, has two stories to tell – one from the life of the Christian faith and one from the life of this specific community of faith. Thus it is that every inch of this building holds memories that reach back to previous generations and the faithfulness of all those who went before.
The beauty of the grounds and the significance of the building, with its memorials and memories, would be nothing without the strength and faithfulness of the existing community. Many of the faithful at St. George’s are descendants of the original settlers, and many of them still farm those original homesteads. These days there are also newcomers, many of them retirees moving to the country. Two hundred years ago the trip to London was long and arduous, but the city has gradually spread out. Today, Ilderton and Denfield are largely dormitory communities, and the ease of access to London means that many people also commute back to the city to go to church. And that works both ways: some of the congregation have moved to live in London but commute back for church!