Mary Louise Cook is a descendant of Canadian pioneers on the land we now call Lawrence Avenue. She was born in 1930, raised in Scarborough, and has watched the communities of the neighbourhood and her own congregation (now called Wexford Heights United Church) evolve. Most people in the church that I spoke to suggested that I meet their “historian”, Mary.
Tell me about your personal background and connection to the area.
My personal background is that I was born and raised on a farm immediately across the road at Birchmount and Lawrence. My great-great-grandparents, [grandfather] John Martin, acquired a hundred acres of crown land – it was called a Clergy Sale, circa 1832. The property was called “Lot 31 Concession D”. The property remained in the Martin name up until 1949, when it was sold to Scarborough Township for the development of industry. I was born and raised on the farm, so I’m about fifth generation. The church was built, at least it started with the Primitive Methodists in 1842, so my great-great grandparents were already on the farm in 1832. We were neighbours of the church, and every time we looked to the northwest, we saw the church.
How has the community transformed in your lifetime?
Come the war-time is when it started to develop, and a lot of the farms around were sold through the Veterans’ Land Act, when soldiers were able to buy land and build their houses. Farmland was all being swallowed up, so our farm was sold – I saw it as a farm community. All these streets started to develop in the 1950s, all these subdivisions, we were so overflowed with people. And by 1955, we were still in the old church, but that’s when we started to build. We built this sanctuary in two stages; the first in 1956, then by 1961 they put the balcony, and then choir rooms down below, and then we added rooms at the back. Before we built, we had Sunday School in a local school, we had it in the manse, we had it in a paper factory – no matter we had to find a place to have Sunday School for all these kids. At one point, we had upwards of a thousand children in our Sunday school. Two services; the people in the early service didn’t get to know the people in the second service, the choir attempted to stay at both services, the minister had double services. It was chaos!
How many families were there?
I’m in the process of writing a history.
I’ve been told you’re writing a book.
Yes, I have researched all this stuff over page after page of annual reports, and I do have the [written] statistics as to what our congregation was… And like everything else, with time, our congregation dwindled because of age and social circumstances. Back in the 1950s, the United Church [of Canada] in every subdivision decided in their wisdom that there should be a church… The old historic church is the last standing building of what was Old Wexford. The other one that’s still standing is St. Jude’s, Anglican, they have a little chapel. So here we are. We have this long heritage, a historic building, and a pioneer cemetery; we’ve got to find a way of holding on to this financially, and attracting people to coming through our doors. We have a lot of revenue from space use, community organizations using it, but it’s extremely worrisome that we may not be able to carry on – but I have every faith we will.
Will there ever be a sign to you that this church will have to amalgamate somewhere else?
The United Church talked about having “District Churches”. A District Church is choosing a site and closing “Satellites”, some of the other churches around, and asking people to come to one larger building. Whether or not that’ll happen, I don’t know, in the mean time, we’ve got our back to the wall and we’re determined that we’re going to still have a place in what we call Wexford. Pharmacy and Lawrence was the crossroads, and we have a long historical presence here in Scarborough.
Would you apply the same principle of rotating ministers to rotating the congregation? Is an individual preaching at a church more important or less important than having people attend?
You have to have a clergy, because that’s what holds it together. You can have lay people get up and tell stories, but you have to have a minister for the service, and baptisms, and weddings, and so on. You can’t do without a clergy… The goal is that we will have more people attending. You see, the issue is, now, there is an ethnic group of people here that aren’t necessarily Christian, so it isn’t the people in the area aren’t going to church, it’s just that there are so many other faiths. And a lot of our people that we have, they don’t live in the neighbourhood, they drive a long way to come back here because they have a long association. Back in the 1950s, after the war, the people that were moving in were white Anglo-Saxons, and they’d all had church experience. Then, gradually, as they had children and they became more affluent, there jobs would move them away or they would want a bigger house so they would move off – and the people that buy up these little houses aren’t necessarily people that would support our congregation. We’ve become a non-worshipping society too. We’re living in a different era all together.
Are you referring to Scarborough, or the world in general?
In general. No matter where you go, there are changes in the worshipping society. We’re not alone in the dilemma we’re in, we’re just having to learn to live with it… The world is shrinking and we have to learn to live with one another, and it’s a good thing.