In a land remarkable for the brevity of its European settlement, it is easy to forget how early in B.C.’s modern history the Saanich Peninsula was settled.
In a testament to these pioneer roots, on June 3 St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Mount Newton will be marking 150 years of continuous service, making it the oldest church in British Columbia. Shady Creek United Church in Saanichton is not far behind; originally built only a few months later – its long career was interrupted by a fire in the late 1800s.
The story of the building of these churches brings to life the formidable characters who laid the groundwork for some of the province’s oldest modern communities.
The leadership to build St. Stephen’s came from William Thomson, a Scot who arrived on Vancouver Island in response to a plea for settlers by Governor James Douglas – insurance against the threat of American annexation. Shipwrecked on the coast of Vancouver Island, Thomson and his party were captured by First Nations and, after a spell of captivity, ransomed to the Hudson’s Bay trading post at Fort Victoria.
Settling in picturesque Mount Newton Valley, Thomson sought to imbibe his eventual 15 children with a moral upbringing. A pious man, in 1862 he donated five acres of land for the building of the church which could provide it.
The lack of local saw mills meant planks of California redwood had to be imported from San Francisco and moved to the construction site by ox team.
Thomson’s great-great-granddaughter, Norma Sealey, can’t help but be in awe of her ancestors for the challenges they faced.
“When I look back and read about what they had to contend with, they come across as very courageous. They not only had to come to a new land, but there was virtually nothing there for them when they got here. They had to create everything they needed. They literally created a society for themselves.”
In nearby Saanichton a similar process was underway as the population expanded thanks to an influx of farmer-immigrants from a rainbow of backgrounds.
“There were Chinese, black, Scottish and more. They all farmed out there,” said Karen Alexander Hoshal. Her great-grandfather, Charles Alexander, one of the first British Columbians of African descent, arrived at the same time as Thomson, also in response to the appeal from Governor Douglas.
A talented man, Alexander spearheaded the construction of a Methodist church, today’s Shady Creek. He designed and constructed the building, and wound up as the church’s first preacher, “probably because he had a loud voice,” Hoshal laughed.
Sadly, the original building burned down a few years later and Shady Creek’s congregation was forced to meet in the homes of area farmers. Finally, when the community had grown too big for these provisional accommodations, Alexander, now an old man, oversaw the construction of the larger church that stands to this day.
Shady Creek has since amalgamated with two other local congregations and become a United church with a weekly attendance of around 150.
Sealey continues to attend St. Stephen’s, the sixth generation of her family to do so.
“For generations all of our family has been baptized, married, and eventually buried here.”
She expects many distant relations to attend the numerous summer events St. Stephen’s will host to celebrate its birthday. These include a homecoming weekend June 1 to 3, and a service and barbecue on June 24.