It’s 1855, and the building is now three years old. The paint is dry, the dust no longer sifting onto the pews. Such a dusty job it was, altogether–stone dust, plaster dust, mortar, just plain mud from the streets. That's all behind us now. Our new church has been here for two years. The congregation, of course, is much older. Several Methodist congregations had been worshiping together since 1791. In 1847 we Methodists decided to join together into one congregation.
But we needed to build a house of worship.
When John Counter sold us the lot for our new building, we had to hire an architect. Many of us liked the work William Coverdale has done around town – St. James Anglican church, built in 1844, St. John's Anglican church in Portsmouth , his fine work on St. George's . And of course, many other buildings in our growing city. Just around the corner, on Earl Street , is the lovely row of new houses – and nearby we can see many imposing homes. Coverdale and his contractors have worked on some of these. We hoped Coverdale would design and build our new Methodist church. He of course agreed, and we have our magnificent new building, officially blessed in 1852. The skyline of our city of 6300 souls is so much richer because of his work.
What is it that makes our building so special for our 1855 worshipers?
Let's walk up William Street from Bagot. Above us is the spire, a slender needle tapering majestically to the heavens. Beneath it, the decorated steeple houses the grand bell they brought all the way from Troy , New York , to call us to worship. This church is truly a fine addition to the many new homes, churches and public buildings that workers are erecting all around this part of the city.
The building is especially impressive from the street. And it is medieval in tone, designed in the Gothic Revival style so popular with church architects these days. Tall and slender it seems from the outside. The limestone speaks of permanence. The tracery and slender elegant openings in the belfry remind us again of the Gothic influence on the builders. The nave is a large rectangle – and everywhere on the exterior walls we see elegant decorations. The large central double door with its Gothic arched transom welcomes us to enter.
Let's stand in the bell tower. High above us hangs the bell, its pull within easy reach.
Now step into the nave (sanctuary) of the church. The ceiling, high above our heads, is beautifully decorated. A centre aisle leads us forward to the chancel. The pews are flat on the floor, straight rows facing the pulpit. And what a pulpit! Nearby, the choir sit, their ministry of music such an important part of our worship services. In front of the communion table rest two highly decorated chairs, almost like thrones, in a Gothic style like so much else in our building.
It’s a beautiful building. The vision of our architect, and the hard work of the labourers, stone masons, carpenters and glaziers who made the vision come to life remind us of God's glory here on earth.
They raised the pulpit high above the communion table, with a double set of stairs leading up from either side to the place where our worship is centred: the sermons.
The people who worshiped in this building in 1855, or simply walked by on William or Sydenham Street would have to take a second look after 1888. The building had changed a great deal.
Let's walk again up William Street , in 2009. At the top of a hill sits an imposing limestone church. The spire, slender and highly decorated, reaches high into the sky. The cedar shingles look new – surely they have not kept the weather at bay since 1852? The Gothic battlements that were part of Coverdale's design are no longer prominent, but huge maple trees frame the front walk. It's an arresting sight.
The building is no longer a rectangle – in 1887/88 William Coverdale's design was rearranged by his successor, John Power. Power and his workers added two large wings to the exterior, and completely rebuilt the interior. More than 1000 people came to worship in the new nave in 1888. Let's walk up the stairs, in through the double doors, and stand in the bell tower. The trusty bell still hangs high above our heads, its pull still nearby. Whose hands have grasped the thick rope and pulled? And whose ears have heard the bell rung – in jubilation, in sorrow or just for fun after a Sunday service?
Let's stand for a minute in the narthex , the curved anteroom leading into the sanctuary. Who has shared this space over the last 158 years? How many fathers of the bride; children with palm branches; choir members; mourners at a funeral; Chancellors of Queen's University; everyday worshipers? What do we all see? Stairs to a balcony on each side; a curved space. This does not seem to fit with the exterior design we saw William Coverdale create – and it doesn't. Power's changes have been extensive.
Walk around to the east side of the narthex and take a look at the historic map of the pews: you may find names from Kingston 's past or present.
Now stand in the doorway at the top of the centre aisle. The ceiling is unusually low for a church with such a high exterior roof. And there are posts all around a curved nave – fluted posts made of wood and circular steel ones. They're holding up the double curved balcony , a remarkable feature added in 1887. The pews in this sanctuary are curved, another unusual feature. Each pew is made of two layers of oak, spaced so that they can be bent to make their unique curved shapes. Curved pews — tiered pews as well, very unusual, and very out of step with Coverdale's original Gothic Revival design. There are seats for 855 in these pews today.
Walk up to the chancel . Missing is the original double-decker pulpit with its two sets of stairs. Now we have a moveable pulpit , much smaller, dedicated in 1929, when major renovations were done by Colin Drever, his company a direct descendent of Coverdale's. Drever's workers installed the reredos , woodwork and organ, as well as the pulpit. Who has spoken from this pulpit, and how have their words reflected events, local or global, that have moved listeners to action or tears or anger or fear?
Behind the pulpit are choir stalls , set facing each other in a deep chancel with the communion table at the back. Ever since the first choir members raised their voices in the new church in 1852, music has been part of the heart of this building. Today, hundreds of people make music here every week: Cantabile choristers, members of the Kingston Choral Society, choir members of Sydenham Street United Church . Musicians of all kinds perform in “the concert hall of Kingston.” Listen for the sound of the grand piano accompanying soloists or choirs -- or playing some jazz.
Listen for the impressive pipe organ , a Casavant 3-manual, with 48 stops, installed in 1929 – then and now a wonderful instrument for organists and listeners alike. Far below, in the church's basement the huge blower that provides the air for the pipes waits for the next call by an organist.
At the back of the chancel , a curved arch set off with blue paint draws our eyes to the ceiling.
Now turn to face the nave and look at the ceiling . This “new” ceiling is beautifully decorated with elegant bosses and ribs, set off with colours of paint to appeal to our eyes. Look at the ceiling from several angles: note all the ribs and bosses, the curves, the capitals with their elegant decoration. During the renovations of the 1990's some of these had to be rebuilt. Above this ceiling sits Coverdale's original ceiling, its decorations unseen today; atop that ceiling, along the central spine, is a walkway used by daring stewards sent to change the light bulbs!
We are still standing at the front of the sanctuary. Old and new symbols face us from the balcony: crests from Queen's University, Royal Military College of Canada, The Royal Canadian Horse Artillery; the blue flag of the United Church of Canada, the rainbow flag symbolising the commitment of our Affirming Congregation to inclusivity, the Union Jack of the United Kingdom , and our Canadian Maple Leaf flag. Right on top of the pew in front of us is the plate noting the attendance of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1959.
Let's walk to our left from the chancel. We find a wall plaque dedicated to Reverend Samuel Dwight Chown, an early Methodist founder of the United Church of Canada. A memorial book notes the deaths of members of the congregation. The grand piano waits for its next performance, resting on the brand new floor. Two stained glass windows , one of them a memorial to 8 members of the congregation killed in the Second World War, catch our eyes.
Walking to our right from the centre of the nave, we find a plaque dedicated to the men from the congregation who lost their lives during the Great War, 1914-1918. Three stained glass windows light up in wonderful ways during sunny days. The first of these was installed in 1876, just 9 years after Confederation. The others were installed in 1939 and 1946, memorials to members of the congregation. Matched sets of doors on either side of the chancel are decorated with carved leather.
The sanctuary is an historic space, but it is filled with evidence of the twenty-first century: fire extinguishers, speakers, light standards for concerts, microphones, wheel chair ramps and chandeliers that can be lowered by winches from way up in Coverdale's roof in order to change their bulbs.
What's behind the sanctuary? The church required more space than the Power wings or Colin Drever's 1929 changes could provide, so in 1961 another renovation changed the sanctuary and provided office, meeting and socialising space. Builders added offices, large upstairs and downstairs halls, a huge kitchen upstairs, and a chapel (recently converted to a meeting room). Space that had once been an apartment for the church sexton became offices and other more public spaces. Now, nearly 200 people can sit down for dinner in the upstairs hall or 150 choristers busy at choir practice. Sunday school classes or community meetings fit comfortably into these spaces. As part of the church's commitment to the community of Kingston , many groups use the building each week, among them AA, AlAnon, Helen Tufts Tutorial and Friendship Program. Improvements in the spaces they use continue.
Coverdale's original design has stood, but it has certainly changed over the last century and a half.
What about beneath us? The basement reveals the original exterior walls erected by the hands of the stonemasons and carpenters working under Coverdale's direction. Huge joists, wooden posts and stone walls bear the weight of the building and the people who enter it. The giant coal furnace stands quiet. And the organ blower sits in its own room.
Sydenham Street United Church has been an inspiring part of the Kingston skyline for more than 157 years. The congregation's pioneer spirit was visible from the earliest days, and is visible today in our Affirming community. If you would like to experience this sanctuary for yourself, please visit our historic church or join us in a worship service.
To all those who have found inspiration in this historic building, this project is respectfully dedicated.
Elspeth Deir, October, 2009.