The Church of St. Peter has been a major feature of the Cobourg scene for nearly two centuries. It is one of the oldest churches in Upper Canada, having been founded in 1819 before the area even had an official name. The first rector, Rev. William Macauley, was appointed under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Quebec. The first church consisted of a 2,300 sq. ft wooden building on the current site.
By the mid-1800s, a growing population, prompted by an influx of United Empire Loyalists and immigrants from the British Isles, meant that a larger building was needed. At that time Cobourg was emerging as an important centre in the colony and with this growth came a considerable increase in the size of congregations under the ministry of the Rev. Alexander Bethune who later became the first bishop of the new diocese of Toronto.
St. Peter's is one of the oldest churches in Ontario founded in 1819
In 1851, Kivas Tully, later architect of Cobourg’s famous Victoria Hall municipal building, drew plans for a new church that could accommodate 500 people. Worship services actually continued in the old church building while a new church was being constructed around and over it. Eventually services were temporarily transferred to a large malt room of a local brewery and the old building removed from inside the new one in 1854.
A contentious issue when the new church opened was the altar table. A plain one from the former church had been replaced by an elaborately carved altar by a group of ‘high church’ supporters of the Tractarian, or Oxford movement. In 1854 a band of ‘low church’ enthusiasts broke into the church and, using axes, hacked off emblems on the front and sides of the altar. The altar was repaired but returned to its donors and for the next 50 years the church did not have one at all.
Pew rental remained a source of income until 1937. In 1875 front corner pews rented for $35/year.
In 1877 a substantial rectory, with an elaborate wood porch and a mansard roof, was built on the east the church beyond the original burial grounds. A new cemetery had been established in the north of the town at Elgin and Ontario Streets.
By 1890 the church needed a Sunday School building. This was completed near the west side of the church, on College St. in October 1891. A significant feature is the second floor auditorium with its heavily beamed ceiling and leaded windows.
Celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of completion of the ‘new’ church included the dedication of a chime of ten bells. These were completed in 1905 and, because their added weight would overload the tower, the spire which had been a prominent feature of the landscape had to be dismantled.
Men of the parish played a significant role in the military during World War I in which fourteen of them lost their lives.
Further expansion of the buildings took place in 1927 with addition of the gymnasium plus two rooms to enable the rector’s office to be moved from the rectory. Also in 1927 the church and Sunday school building were connected by a single storey addition that eventually became the first St. Paul’s chapel.
In 1967, during the incumbency of the Rev. Duncan Abraham, later Dean of St. James, Cathedral, 32 units of low rental bungalows for senior citizens and the disabled were built on church land to the North East of the church. A further 32 units were built two years later.
For some years there had been growing concern that the main church building was falling into disrepair and could be condemned. Under the energetic leadership of the rector, Rev. Terry Tarleton an extensive restoration project was completed in February 1978.
Canon Tarleton was also instrumental in having St. Peter’s named the garrison church of the Royal Marines Association and, in 1969, hosted a Remembrance Day service attended by eleven holders of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.
The original pipe organ built in 1873 underwent several modifications over the years. One organist was the father of Marie Dressler who would sometimes pump the organ for him. In 1998 a major restoration project was undertaken which led to St. Peter’s organ being considered one of the finest between Montreal and Toronto.
Growth of St. Peter’s activities and programs, during 1990s under the incumbency of Canon Peter Walker, had put much pressure on the capacity of existing buildings. Because of this, the potential for St. Peter’s to become a church fully in tune with the changing needs of the 21st Century had become a matter of major concern. Additional pressure came from St. Peter’s new role as the Cobourg campus of Wycliffe theological college of the University of Toronto. Significantly, Christian education had been a major feature during the life of St. Peter’s with the establishment of the Cobourg Theological Institute in the 1840’s which later became Trinity College, Toronto, and Hatfield Hall school for girls from 1927 to 1952.
In January 2000, as a Millennium project, a systematic analysis of future needs identified required changes and enlargement of the buildings to accommodate them, and developed a comprehensive plan for raising the capital funds necessary to achieve this.
Money for the reconstruction and expansion project came from St. Peter’s members, including major legacies, and the Diocese of Toronto. Additional funds for education facilities came from Paul Helliwell, a leading Wycliffe College benefactor. Plans included a spectacular new octagonal St. Paul’s chapel. Construction commenced in the summer of 2003 and continued until completion of the entire project in the summer of 2005.
St. Peter’s now has extremely beautiful buildings as well as the facilities needed for a growing, progressive 21st century church community with a stated vision: ‘Lifelong Learning, Lifelong Growing and Lifelong Service in the Body of Christ.’
Jim Weller, Feb. 12, 2008