Written by Paul Vaculik, ROMwalks volunteer
The first Church at York (later renamed to St. James) was built in 1807 by soldiers of the British garrison. The church and its rector, the Reverend Dr. John Strachan, became central to events of the War of 1812.
In the April 1813 Battle of York, after the British regiments retreated hastily to Kingston, American soldiers looted the town’s buildings and property, including the church, and burned public buildings in contravention of the terms of surrender by the British. The Reverend Strachan confronted and stubbornly dogged General Dearborn to have the Americans finally cease their looting and burning. Amongst the buildings burned were the Parliament and Governor’s residence – the British retaliated by invading Washington and burned many public buildings including the Presidential White House.
As casualties increased in 1814 from the Niagara frontier battles, the hospital at Fort York proved inadequate to treat the wounded and sick transferred to the town. The Church at York, being one of the largest structures in the town, was transformed from a house of worship to a military hospital and played a major role in the treatment of those casualties….
‘…..the space and ventilation provided by the Church proved beneficial to many of the patients treated there. The wounded who were admitted into the church hospital had all the advantages of a free ventilation. This building became extremely serviceable to the recovery of those men whose injuries were of a serious kind. From the pure air which the sick and wounded enjoyed in it, their progress to a state of convalescence was often rapid. Men whose wounds put on an unpromising aspect in the general hospital, were at times transferred to this establishment.’
At the end of the war, the church was returned to its original purpose.
Strachan’s leadership and his adherence to the conservative principles of governance and religion upon which Upper Canada had been founded by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, made him influential in the evolution of the Town of York, later to become the City of Toronto, and its religious and educational fabric. Strachan’s character is illustrated by his words…
“I have the reputation of being fearless and decided, and whether correct or not, it saves me much trouble.”
Attend the Sacred Stones & Steeples ROMwalk on Sunday, August 19, starting at 2 pm in front of St. James Cathedral at King and Church streets to learn about the history and architecture of this and other religious institutions, and how their leaders helped shape this city.