Queen Elizabeth II
It’s June 1959. The St Lawrence Seaway project is complete. And Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be in Kingston to participate in the official opening of the Seaway. Why is everyone at Sydenham Street United Church in such a tizzy of excitement? The Queen is coming to church!
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip included “attending a church service” on their Kingston itinerary – and it had to be a “large, non-conformist, cathedral-like church with a reputation for good music”. That sounded like Sydenham Street, so congregation members began to make meticulous arrangements. The excitement was tinged with anxiety – would things be “just right” for the big event? Everything had to be in perfect order.
Property committee members and others started with the front doors – the big doors were held open by a “rusty old coat hanger” which hadn’t bothered anyone till now. A better system was put in place. Then everything had to be spotless – scrubbing and dusting and painting and varnishing and polishing, all in readiness for a special Sunday in June.
Next came the measuring: what was the sanctuary’s capacity? A most unusual method of measurement worked out well – hands were stretched along the pews for the space to be measured in inches. No fancy instruments: human hands determined that 1200 people could fit inside the church. Today, of course, the Fire Marshal uses a different set of criteria and 855 is a capacity crowd. People were more than happy to squeeze into any available space to see Queen Elizabeth.
There was one question of great concern: who would be squeezing into those pews? Tickets were in great demand. Members of the congregation were guaranteed a ticket, religious and political leaders from the local community received invitations. And then came the rush of requests from all over the city and region. So many people felt they had a legitimate reason to be included in the special event, including a former member of the Sunday School honour roll who called from New Jersey expecting a ticket for his attendance as a child. Tickets and admission soon got sorted out, along with the roster of ushers. The young men who typically acted as ushers had to apply for the job for this special Sunday service and were thrilled when their name was chosen.
The day Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walked in the front doors was beautiful and sunny, the picture of late June’s magic. Their wish to be treated like any other member of the congregation was never possible: with guards at the front door, important community members in attendance, streets cut off for the motorcade, and the buzzing excitement that filled the city, it was clear that someone important was in the building. Dozens of people gathered outside the church to catch a glimpse of the Royals but only those with tickets were allowed inside.
The organist and choirmaster at this time was Dr. F. R. C. Clarke who composed an original anthem for the special occasion. He conducted the choir with vigor and helped to provide a memorable service. When things got slightly behind schedule, Winston Holland, the man selected to manage the collection plates, hurried through the aisles. To those who noticed, the slight commotion was very amusing. Somebody commented that “the Queen must have been startled to have a collection plate suddenly stuck out in front of her.”
The service was broadcast by many radio stations across Canada, giving listeners a chance to hear Prince Philip read a Scripture lesson in what one reporter called a commanding and proud voice.
The visit was considered a great success thanks to the hard work of the Church’s committee members. Queen Elizabeth II had every reason to be pleased with her choice of a “non-conformist” church.
Today a small bronze plaque marks the pew where the Royals sat on Sunday June 28 in 1959.
Annual Report of Sydenham Street United Church, 1959
The Visit of Queen Elizabeth to SSUC, Kingston, Ontario, June 1959: various letters and church documents
The Toronto Telegram, June 1959
Special thanks to Libby Graham, Queen’s University student intern 2019
Church interior photo credit Jennifer McKendry 2016