Our History

How does one begin to write a brief history of a church with almost two hundred years of special moments? There is a 224 page book compiled by Ralph Pawson “under the auspices of the Historical Committee of First-Pilgrim United Church” that endeavours to gather as much information as possible published in 1998.

In order to whet your appetite to read this manual or perhaps to inspire an update to it for the 200th Anniversary in 2024, the following is a list of “did you know” facts.

DID YOU KNOW THAT

  • This church has roots from First Methodists, First United Church, Pilgrim (First Congregational) United Church, Central United Church and The German Evangelical Church.
  • The history of First United Church began before the formation of the City of Hamilton.
  • There is a link between the first settler in Hamilton and the First church known as White Church.
  • The Methodists bought the lot on the corner of Wellington and King on June 11, 1823 and built the first church in the town.
  • In the early days, families paid rent for their pew and at times pew rents increased to raise funds.
  • The average attendance of the Sunday School in 1891 was 551 – it also had an orchestra!
  • On Christmas Day, 1892, fire destroyed the Sunday School – a new building was built and opened within a year.
  • In April 1895 the Electric Light Company charged $75 to wire the church with electricity.
  • Fire destroyed the Sunday School building and part of the church – a new church was completed in 1914 with a choir loft to seat 60 singers and pews for 1600.
  • 1923 saw a big change in pew allocation – continue in morning services but free for evening services
  • There was an interior lawn bowling green in the gymnasium of the church in 1924.
  • On June 10, 1925, First Church united with the United Church of Canada becoming First United Church.
  • Over a thousand people enjoyed supper, served in relays, to celebrate the Centennial of First Church.
  • The Depression caused financial strain – 1936 total donations were 40% less than 1945.
  • CGIT members decreased from 130 members in 1936 to 35 members in 1942.
  • In 1945 First had a ceremonial burning of the mortgage – a debt burden since 1912. Central burned theirs in 1948.
  • Over 150 members actively engaged in “His Majesty’s Service” during the war (1943).
  • February 10, 1957 a major fire destroyed the Pilgrim United Church interior; the church was restored and reopened January 12, 1958.
  • Church manses were located at 275 Main Street (demolished 1962) and 166 Delaware Street.
  • 1962 saw the formation of the United Church Women (amalgamating the Women’s Association and the Women’s Missionary Society) – the initial meeting was at First United Church.
  • 1963 Central United amalgamated with First United Church
  • The German United Church was constituted on March 7, 1965 at Pilgrim United.
  • In 1967 the congregations helped organize the German-Canadian Benevolent Society for the Aged as a mission outreach.
  • Fire destroyed First Church September 13, 1969; members worshiped at St. Thomas Anglican for eight years; the previous membership of over 2000 dwindled.
  • Service to inaugurate First Church’s new facilities at First Place on March 31, 1977.
  • First and Central amalgamated in 1963. First and Pilgrim amalgamated in 1982 with German congregation affiliated.
  • A minister of First, Rev Lois Wilson, became the first woman Moderator of the United Church of Canada in 1980. She was the first woman to head a major Christian denomination in Canada.
  • First Congregational built the church at 200 Main Street in 1912 and changed its name to Pilgrim United Church in 1925.
  • October 21, 1984 the congregations moved back to 200 Main St. E. from First Place.
  • Wesley Urban Ministries occupied the vacant church at 200 Main St. from 1982-1984.
  • The sanctuary focal point at 200 Main St. East changed from organ pipes to solitary golden cross framed by Iconic pillars against a red curtain and back to organ pipes.
  • Ted Lewis, Clerk of Session at the time, was a participant in the cornerstone service of 1984. Mayor Morrow said “You have created a most beautiful church, for a congregation that has such a great past and such thrilling potential.”
  • By 1986, the congregation had worked jointly with the Kiwanis to establish a Boys and Girls Club in the Corktown-Stinson area; difficulty maintaining continuity and interest because of 2/3 to 4/5 school turnover.
  • In 1988 a low cost housing project was started and resulted in two housing developments to the rear of the church: Central Place and Pilgrim Place.
  • In 1990 the remaining manse was sold.
  • First Place established as a non-profit charitable organization by members of First-Pilgrim United to provide and sponsor accommodation mainly for elderly and disadvantaged. Mission statement adopted April 24, 1995.
  • A Sudbury connection instilled the euphoric vision that led to the congregation becoming developers of the First Place site.
  • The Corporation was formed and a CMHC loan was approved for about $8.5 million at 8% over 50 years. The sod breaking ceremony was held October 20, 1974. Another $1.5 million renovations and in 1993 about $10 million in upgrades was approved.
  • The building was constructed at a rate of one floor per week UNTIL seven graves were discovered! Robinson Funeral Homes assisted with reinternment at Woodlands Cemetery.
  • At the building “Top-Off” ceremony November 14, 1975, Mayor Vic Copps joked about the air conditioning on an icy November day 25 storeys up. The local MP Honourable John Munro sustained damage to his coat with the pouring of the last bucket of concrete – he graciously denied compensation offered by the Board.
  • There were two opening ceremonies. The official Opening Ceremony of First Place was March 28, 1977 with a ribbon cutting by the distinguished Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, the oldest resident of the building (95 years old). A second was held for members of First Church on March 31, 1977.
  • Black ink replaced the red: it took ten years of operations before revenues equalled expenditures on First Place.
  • The three original congregations are recognized by the affordable housing buildings First Place, Central Place and Pilgrim Place.
  • The official opening of Central Place and Pilgrim Place on Jackson Street was September 23, 1992. They cost about $9 million. Building operations are subsidized province by the about $1.5 million per year (as of 1998).
  • An official Rededication took place May 3, 1995 followed by a Civic Recognition Ceremony of First-Pilgrim with a presentation of a flag of the City of Hamilton on October 10, 1995.
  • Various rooms at First Place are named after First-Pilgrim members and significant contributors to the project.
  • The second floor space at First Place went from Church use 1976-1982 to commercial rentals to assisted living for seniors in 1999.
  • There was an amalgamation between First Place Board and HOPE “Helping Our People Economically” December 31, 1998.
  • Egerton Ryerson was the first pastor of First Church and also known as the father of the Ontario Public school system of education
  • The Board of First Church helped establish what is now Ryerson United Church. Thomas Morris, a member, procured a large tent from Toronto and brought it back by the ‘Macassa” a steam vessel to open services on July 19, 1908.
  • Thomas Morris later loaned the tent to another struggling church. The Good Samaritan and acting Mayor laid the cornerstone of Church of St. James until they began to build in 1915. His son Wilfrid became a pioneer in the collection of the church’s archive material.
  • Richard Springer started a church class, first in his home and then later in his barn. The first sermon by a Methodist minister was preached in 1801 by Dr. Nathan Bangs. He is known as the Founder of Methodism in Hamilton.
  • Richard Springer’s father David was a minister in Delaware Washington. As a United Empire Loyalist he was shot for refusing to fight the British. Crown land was given to the Springer family upon their arrival here, of which 300 acres was granted to his son Richard. Only Richard and David of six children were granted land because the other four children were female.
  • Richard Springer’s tombstone survived the fire of 1969 and is located in the lobby of First Place.
  • Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw was initially a member of First Methodist Church and in 1932 helped found Canada’s first birth control clinic and was a director until 1962. She was first medical director of PPS (Planned Parenthood Society), Hamilton’s citizen of the year in 1970, a member of the Order of Canada (1973). She was the subject of the National Film Board’s documentary “Doctor Woman”. She was a pioneer in the field of family planning and one of the first and most remarkable women physicians in Canada, probably in the world.
  • On the 50th Anniversary of the Canadian law declaring women to be persons, at the age of 98, Dr. Bagshaw received the Governor General’s award for her efforts to advance the status of women (she was not allowed to vote until age 37).
  • Dr. Desmond Little said “Dr. Bagshaw’s life says what we must always attempt to do here. Her personal and professional life has been that creative combination of church commitment and community service that we must all seek to express here as people.”
  • There was a radio scandal in 1926. George H. Lees was an advocate of prohibition and the temperance movement and an active church member. CKOC regularly broadcast First Church Sunday Services. When the sermon was about prohibition, the owner of the station cut the service off the air. Lees and others were outraged and formed a competitive broadcasting facility – the beginning of CHML. The call letters stand for Canada Hamilton Maple Leaf and the first broadcasts were from the basement of First Church.
  • George Lees motto: “Do your best and leave the rest to God.”