St. John’s Anglican Church is oldest church in Whitby


“If you ignore history, it will reach out, grab you, and shake you, and say ‘Hey, pay attention!’. Whitby assists that natural impulse for history to come back to life and to not be forgotten,” said Donald Orville-Merrifield at Heritage Day.

St. John’s Anglican Church has been standing since Whitby was a grain shipping village in 1846. It is now the headquarters of Durham Region.

The church has had many people worship within its walls over the last 176 years. Marjorie Sorell, author of What the Walls Have Seen and Heard During the last 165 years, and active member of the Port Hope and district, wrote the book to commemorate the church’s 165-year anniversary.

“Indeed, the church’s ‘Walls have Seen and Heard’ all that has transpired, the parishioners’ prayers and dreams, and have been witness to the changes in the community,” writes Sorell in the introduction.

Though many people spend their weekends within the Anglican church, once a year, the church’s community and residents of the town come together to celebrate how far the church has come on Heritage Day.

The one-day event takes place on 201 Brock St. S, in downtown Whitby. The community vendors cover four blocks of downtown along Brock Street where hundreds of long time and new residents come to share their passion for Whitby’s heritage.

People walk up and down the street, listening to music from The Whitby Brass Band, eating cotton candy and popcorn while looking at organizations of what the town brings to its community such as The Farmers’ Market vendor, selling homemade baked goods and fresh produce.

The event has been a part of Whitby since the late 1980’s and has been a yearly tradition to this day. Brian Winter, 70, a retired archivist of Whitby, attends the event every year.

He is part of the architectural committee called ‘Heritage Whitby’. He and others sit at a booth behind a desk, displaying historical architectural photographs of Trafalgar Castle, St. John’s Anglican Church, and other buildings that are still standing since the 1840’s, while selling Winter’s own book called Chronicles of a County Town: Whitby Past and Present that was published in 1999 and has been selling copies ever since.

Winter has been researching the town’s history since he was 13 years old. He became archivist for Whitby in 1968, retiring in 2012. He decided to write an updated book since the last book written at the time was back in 1907.

Wil Stonehill, the minister of St. John’s Anglican Church, has been part of the church’s community since 2012. He says people who were part of the church’s community reflect on how St. John’s impacted their lives through Sunday School picnics, member meetings, and marriage. Stonehill wants the residents of Whitby to understand the church still stands today because of them.

“The people in this town hold a significant place in their lives and I think that’s really special,” he said. “We as a church community want the people to know we care about them. We want to show them we are interested in their lives, how their families and children are doing, their celebrations, and their struggles. These people who are part of our community are truly good, caring people.”

Stonehill was inspired to become a minister ever since he involved himself in a church community. He met his social circle through a church setting and is still friends with them today.

“Most of my friends today I made in church. We hung out together, we went out for dinner after church, and after youth group. We went out to bars at night together,” he said. “We became really close friends even though we are all spread out through North America. We still keep in touch and pray for each other. That’s what a church’s job should be, to keep the community connected in the interest of other people’s lives.”

Heritage Day distinguishes the connection between its history and people. Brian Winter describes the event to be important towards the newer residents of the town to acquaint themselves to the history – especially St. John’s.

Winter explains the church looks the same as it was when the church opened in 1846. On the corner of Brock and Victoria Street, the church was built out of limestone from Kingston, Ont.

“A man named John Welsh who was a store keeper in Windsor Bay, now called Port Whitby since 1847. He shipped grain from Whitby Harbour and when he went to Kingston, he got limestone that was cut by the Quarries. He brought it back to Whitby and built a store out of the limestone,” he said. “John also had enough limestone to build a church, the St. John’s Anglican Church. Christine Elliot and her husband Jim Flaherty’s house on Garden Street is also built out of the same limestone used to build the church.”

Winter says after Welsh passed away, he was buried in the cemetery behind the church and his tombstone can be viewed by residents today.

The stained glass windows lying against the grey limestone walls and important figures buried in the cemetery that he researched at the age of 13, inspired him to one day walk out of the church’s great black doors, hand in hand with the love of his life.

In 1976, 29-year-old Winter did get the chance to marry in the church he always saw himself getting married in – with a girl who happened to be a member of St. John’s Anglican Church.

The land where the church stands and the church itself is a concrete reminder of the town’s history and community.

On September 30, 2017 at Heritage Day, Winter describes Whitby in three words. “Beautiful heritage, that’s two words. No I meant to say, a very beautiful heritage. That’s three words,” he said.