In the 1860s, the district of Toronto we know as Bathurst and Bloor was just open fields, called "commons". There, in scattered cottages, people from the Wesleyan and Methodist traditions held their prayer-meetings. In 1862 two small churches from this background organized a congregation led by the Rev. James Elliott. Four years later they built their first church, on Markham Street, just north of Bloor.
In 1872, a larger church was built on the southwest corner of Bathurst and Lennox. The present church was erected at that location in 1888. It cost thirty thousand dollars. A Sunday school building was added in 1910. The Bathurst congregation belonged to the Methodist Church of Canada. In 1925, the Methodists joined with Presbyterians and Congregationalists to form the United Church of Canada. And so, Bathurst St. United Church was born. During this decade, Bathurst United had more than two thousand members.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, the Bathurst-Bloor district changed significantly. Many church families moved to the suburbs and the area became home to a new immigrant population and changing religious traditions. This meant new challenges and opportunities for the old church at the corner of Bathurst and Lennox
Throughout this time, the minister was Gordon Domm. His preparation for the ministry had included training in social services. Reverend Domm was able to bring new features into the life of the congregation and the surrounding community.
The Sunday Evening Forum (1944-1951)
This was an effort to make the church more relevant to people’s lives by revitalizing the Sunday evening service. The service was shortened, and the sermon replaced by debates and panel discussions on issues of vital interest. The audience was invited to participate. The speakers came from across Canada and the United States. They represented professions, business and industry, the labour movement, and various races and faiths. They included visiting statespersons and churchpersons.
Notable among the speakers was Tim Buck, chairman of the Canadian Communist Party. His family home was on Lennox Avenue, within two blocks of the church. Mr. Buck appeared at one of the forums after his release from prison.
The Sunday Evening Forum was sometimes filled to overflowing. Some members of the congregation were unsympathetic to this type of program, and withdrew from the church. Other people were drawn to Bathurst United because of the Forum.
Midtown Kiwanis Boys' Club
Church members opened the club in 1945 in partnership with the Kiwanis. Money came from the Loblaw Trust Fund. The club accepted boys from age 7 to 17. By the early sixties it had 440 members. The program included sports, games, crafts, health studies, social activities and a summer camp outside the city.
A Home for the "Beanery Gang"
The Beanery Gang was one of the most notorious youth gangs in Toronto’s history. Reverend Domm arranged for gang members to use part of the church for recreational and social activities, and to receive counseling.
Several community groups - choral, dramatic, social and recreational – also used the Bathurst facilities from time to time. For two years the Student Christian Movement (SCM) made the church the headquarters of its Summer Work Camp.
A long tradition of social justice activism…
Mr. Domm’s successor was the reverend Glynn Firth. Mr. Firth was instrumental in introducing a program of urban training for ministry students. Especially challenging was the option of spending one night on the streets (or in a hostel if students were lucky enough to get in). Along with other Bathurst members, Mr. Firth also joined religious groups across Toronto in the peace movement’s protests and marches.
Mr. Firth helped organize the Bloor-Spadina Interchurch Group. “Intch”, as it was known, sponsored many community initiatives. They included The Gathering Spot and Senior Adult Services. Two Bathurst members, Keith Roos and Mae Dawes, gave many years of leadership to those agencies.
One Bathurst program that had a significant impact on the community and the congregation was “Hi C”. Hi C started in 1957 as mid-week meetings on topics of interest to teens in the downtown area. Twenty volunteers organized games, sports, drama, weekend camps, counseling, and leadership conferences. In one season as many as 180 young people were involved. The first full time youth worker at Hi C was Bill Sanders. He had worked with young people in the inner city of New York. Bill was succeeded by Don Munro, whose family joined the congregation.
Many current members of Bathurst were part of the congregational and volunteer activities in those days: Ray and Betty Harris, Margaret Howe, Yoshi Kuwabara, Aston Clarke, and Patrick and Audrey Douglas. Lawrence Goudge directed the Bathurst choir (more recently, Lawrence was music director of the Annex Singers of Toronto, a group that has long included Bathurst members).
In the early 1970s, the reverend Milton Little became the minister at Bathurst. Milton and his wife, Vera, carried on the tradition of activist service. They held stimulating Sunday programs for the congregation’s teens. As members of “Ploughshares”, they at one time withheld a portion of their income taxes. Milton and Vera provided outstanding inspiration in the search for peace and social justice.
Listen to Milton's sermon, "How Does Prayer Work?"
In the mid seventies, Milton resigned to take up a post in the Ontario Office of Human Rights. The Reverend Stuart Coles became Bathurst’s minister. Stuart, Frances Combs, Angie Pritchard and Peter Davies co-founded Bridgehead Trading; the first Canadian company to market fair trade tropical products. The venture was such a success that the founders eventually turned over its management to Oxfam. Bathurst was also a founding member of the Bread and Roses Credit Union and is still part of the C-A-I-C (Canadian Alternative Investment Company).
Frances Combs joined Bathurst in 1980. She became a member of the church staff in 1982. Frances served as lay minister for worship and pastoral care while Stuart Coles was minister for outreach and administrator of the church building. Frances was ordained in 1987. She continued to serve as part-time minister until her retirement in 2000.
Long-time member Nancy Tyrrell was a noted peace activist during this time. She was imprisoned for her protests against Litton Industries and the cruise missile. After her death in 1986 a congregational banner was made from her clothing as a lasting tribute. Nancy’s memorial service was the last such service in the old church building. The event attracted a wide variety of participants, reflecting her many concerns for social justice.
From Bathurst Street to Trinity-St. Paul’s on Bloor
For many years, the congregation made strenuous efforts to meet financial demands by renting out space in the church to community and theatrical groups. Each organization had a seat on a building management committee. However, by the mid nineteen eighties the responsibility of keeping up such a large, old church was too onerous for a small congregation. So, the members decided to relocate. In December of 1985, two young trumpeters led the congregation in a procession along Bloor Street to Trinity-St. Paul’s. From that time on, Bathurst has held its worship services in the chapel at Trinity-St. Paul’s.
Toronto South Presbytery took over the old church building, with Stuart Coles staying on as administrator until his retirement 1n 1986. The building continued to be used as a community centre and theatre until it was sold in 2002.
Toronto South Presbytery of the United Church of Canada is creating a foundation that will use the proceeds from the sale to fund social ministry projects in the urban core of Toronto. It will be called the Bathurst Street Foundation.
In September of 2000 we welcomed the Reverend Ralph Wushke as Frances’ successor. Ralph’s ministry continues to build on the social justice traditions of the congregation and its role as an inclusive ‘affirming’ church, open to all persons whatever their sexual orientation. Ralph was ordained as a United Church minister at the 2004 annual meeting of Toronto Conference.
Frances is still a member of the congregation. She is now helping Ralph in her new role as Volunteer Pastoral Associate.
In recent years, Bathurst has been working with Bloor St. United to explore the ministry of a “Parish Nurse”. Both churches now employ Nancy Gordon on a part-time basis. Nancy is a registered nurse and a member of Bloor St. United.
Bathurst has also developed an overseas ecumenical link with the Gelsenkirchen-Buer Parish of the Evangelical United Church in Germany. The partnership began in 1999 while Bathurst was taking part in the Jubilee 2000 Debt Cancellation Campaign. The initiative has included several visits and a youth exchange. An adult exchange with the German parish is planned for 2005 and 2006.
Since the 1960’s the congregation has lightened its life in a variety of ways. Whenever possible we make time to meet and eat together--before our parish council meetings or at monthly ‘spaghetti supper’ nights hosted by members. Annual fund-raising takes the form of a talent/dream auction, with ‘Bathurst bucks’ leveling the playing field for participants.
For many years the congregation has held retreats. We used to travel twice a year to Regina Mundi, near Mount Albert. Since 1999, we’ve been going every May to Crieff Hills, in the Guelph area. In the Fall we have a day retreat at Friends' House in Toronto.
The choir has performed musicals of its own devising; and significant occasions in congregational life have been celebrated with parties, songs and skits. In December 1990 the congregation staged "Red and the Wolf: A Pantomime for our Time", by Audrey Douglas. Our choir director, Beverly Lewis, wrote the music. The event raised money for our outreach. It was a lot of fun.
This brief history is based in part on Bathurst Street United Church - Historical Booklet 1862-1962