St. George the Martyr Anglican Church

On August 15, 2012, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the parishioners of St. George the Martyr Anglican Church unveiled a provincial plaque at St. George the Martyr Anglican Church in Magnetawan, Ontario to commemorate St. George the Martyr Anglican Church.

The plaque reads as follows:


    Reverend William Crompton, a travelling missionary, founded an Anglican mission at Magnetawan in 1880. Later that same year, construction began on this church. Built on the Old Nipissing Colonization Road at a time of tremendous growth in the area, the church provided a spiritual centre for the local community and served as an important meeting place for settlers. The building is a fine example of Carpenter Gothic, a late-19th-century architectural style that incorporated Gothic-inspired elements on wood-framed buildings. Resting on an outcropping of Precambrian bedrock and built with local timber; the church's location, architectural form and materials connect it to the natural landscape. A.J. Casson, a member of the Group of Seven, captured the iconic, picturesque qualities of this church in his painting Anglican Church at Magnetawan. St. George the Martyr has become a significant landmark and a symbol of the cultural and natural foundations upon which much of the province developed.

Historical background

Resting on an outcropping of the Canadian Shield, Magnetawan’s St. George the Martyr Anglican Church is a significant local landmark built at a time of tremendous growth in the province. Located on the Nipissing Colonization Road overlooking the Magnetawan River system, the church represents a rich combination of cultural, religious, economic and natural influences on which much of Ontario developed.

The Anglican Church at Magnetawan is in many ways a product of the profound changes taking place in Ontario at the end of the 19th century. The thriving lumber industry was a tremendous source of revenue for the province; logging had exponentially outpaced re-growth. By mid-century, the pine forests in the south of the province had been virtually depleted. Labour and infrastructure were thus needed farther north, where the supply of white pine was vast, but the terrain was yet uncharted for the purposes of permanent settlement. By the late 19th century, the provincial government had become interested in the economic potential of Northern Ontario. The government organized surveying parties to travel through Northern Ontario, identifying natural resources and mapping the region. The government then promoted the area both domestically and abroad and began investing in infrastructure. To encourage settlement, the provincial government passed the Free Grants and Homestead Act in 1868. In 1872, Agriculture and Public Works Commissioner Archibald McKellar wrote about Ontario:

    No portion of the Dominion offers greater inducements to emigrants. What the country needs is men to clear the forest lands, to cultivate the soil, to build houses, to make the ordinary household goods, and to open up communication from one part of the country to another, by the construction of roads and railways. Of professional men, book-keepers, and clerks, Ontario has enough and to spare.1

The idea of relocating to the forests of Northern Ontario would no doubt have seemed daunting to Canadians and prospective immigrants alike. For those seeking guidance, Thomas McMurray published a book in 1871 titled The Free Grant Lands of Canada, from practical experience of bush farming in the free grant districts of Muskoka and Parry Sound. In it, he offered detailed and practical advice to those considering a move to the area. In his section on Magnetawan, he wrote, “There is a splendid water privilege here on which Mr. Miller is erecting a saw-mill; a good Sabbath-school is also kept up for the benefit of the children. I have no hesitation in stating that Magnetawa [sic] will yet be a place of considerable importance, its situation excellent.”2 McMurray’s assessment proved correct. The community did indeed flourish, thanks to its location at the junction of two important thoroughfares: the Nipissing Road3 and the Magnetawan River.

The Nipissing Road was one of 20 colonization roads built by the Ontario government to make the area between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay more accessible. Like the free land grants, the purpose of these roads was to encourage settlers to move north. The road eased the passage for settlers and loggers to clear forests, build farms and raise families. Construction of the Nipissing Road took eight years. On its completion in 1872, the Magnetawan community grew quickly and a building boom ensued: three hotels, four general stores, a post office, a tin shop, a bakery and a feed shop all opened in 1879 alone.4 A lock and wing dams were built in 1884-86 to allow passenger steamers and freight boats to reach Ahmic Harbour on the Magnetawan River. Rail travel reached nearby Burk’s Falls by 1885 and, by 1890, shipbuilding became a major industry in both Burk’s Falls and Ahmic Harbour.

Throughout these years, infrastructure attempted to keep pace with population growth. As more settlers arrived and families grew, so too did the communities’ social needs. Religion was an important part of life in Victorian Canada. In an 1871 census, only 1.2 per cent of the population of Ontario professed no religious preference or creed.5 Regular religious observance held a particular importance for newcomers to Northern Ontario, as it allowed individuals and families to maintain beliefs and customs from home and to get acquainted with their new neighbours. According to an itinerant minister working in the region at the time, church services in rural pastorates “fulfill an important place in the social economy of the backwoods of Canada. Amid the isolation of their solitary farm life the people – the female portion of the household especially – see little of each other except at these weekly and fortnightly gatherings.”6 The importance of the availability of religious services was not lost on McMurray, who gives an enthusiastic firsthand testimonial in his book of advice to those considering a move to the area:

    The religious advantages of Muskoka and Parry Sound far exceed the expectation of strangers unacquainted with the settlement. Visitors not unfrequently [sic] entertain the idea that the settlers are shut out from all facilities for the public worship of God, but, happily, it is not so . . . [in order] to meet the spiritual necessities of a largely increased and constantly increasing population, there has been a considerable increase in the number of Christian labourers and means of grace. Several churches have been built, and several others are in contemplation. […].”7

As the communities grew, the need for larger gathering places became increasingly urgent. Reverend Robert Mosely recounts a journey to Magnetawan with the Bishop of Algoma, saying “[we] were somewhat disappointed, not being able to hold service for the want of a suitable building or room, and the Church members being very widely scattered. We however, visited some Church families, hoping on a future occasion to hold a service among them.”8 When money was needed to build a church, appeals for contributions were made locally and further afield. Reverend William Crompton, founder of the mission at Magnetawan, was well-known in the area for his involvement in the building of over 20 churches in the region. The Algoma Missionary News reported in 1881:

    On Sunday morning, Oct 17th, The Rev. Mr. Crompton occupied the pulpit of St. George’s Church, Toronto, from which he made an earnest appeal for Missions generally, and for the Church he is building in the village of Magnetawan in particular. The Rev. Gentleman illustrated his subject by anecdotes from life, many of them connected with himself and family, who have lived seven years in the Bush and for some time were so isolated that they had nothing but a sleigh tract of about nine miles by which to reach their home. The feelings of the St. George congregation were evidently warmly roused, for the reply to his appeal was $120 to be devoted to the church at Magnetawan Village, which is to be called St. George the Martyr.9

Once the money to build the church had been secured, a design needed to be selected. The choice was an important one. Architectural styles readily served as an expression of ideology, and the chosen style would reflect the community’s values. Gothic and Gothic revival styles had been linked to many political movements and philosophies throughout history, but at the end of the 19th century, Gothic revivalism was considered a conservative choice. It was chosen for the design of Britain’s Houses of Parliament in 1836, and Canada followed suit in design choice for Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in 1859.

The degree to which architectural styles were intertwined with philosophies of the period is well illustrated by the Cambridge Camden Society, an architectural society devoted to the study and promotion of medieval Gothic architecture. Founded in 1839, the society and its monthly journal The Ecclesiologist, had a deep influence on the design of Anglican churches in England and throughout the colonies. Despite the short 20-year span of its existence, the Society is credited with the virtual single-handed reinvention of parish church design. The Society’s central goal was to promote a return to medieval Gothic architecture with a focus on rigorous archaeological discipline. It is no coincidence that the society’s establishment and period of influence coincided with enthusiastic demand for reform in the Anglican Church as the Middle Ages were considered to be a time of exceptional piety. Characteristic features of the medieval Gothic style include pointed windows and doors, rose windows, flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, high towers and a general focus on verticality.10

Construction of St. George the Martyr Anglican Church in Magnetawan was completed in 1880. Saint George was a popular namesake in colonial Canada, being the patron saint of England – and due to his association with chivalry, bravery and Christian virtue.11 The building is a fine example of a type of Gothic revivalism known as carpenter Gothic because it incorporated Gothic-inspired elements on wood-framed buildings. St. George the Martyr’s steep gables, pointed windows, high tower, round window with quatrefoil design, and generally unadorned exterior are all hallmark features of carpenter Gothic. The floor plan of the church, with its centre aisle and rounded apse at the eastern end where the altar is located, is also characteristic. The church’s interior woodwork was done by local craftsmen and features geometric patterns consistent with the emphasis on mathematics common to Gothic revival buildings. This woodwork remains in its original condition today.

Built predominantly of local old growth white pine, the church’s architectural form, materials and location connect it to the surrounding natural landscape. Because of its picturesque qualities, St. George the Martyr was chosen as the subject of a painting by A.J. Casson, one of Canada’s most celebrated artists. Casson was the youngest member of the Group of Seven, a group of painters based in Toronto, who forged a new school of Canadian painting focused on the landscape and physical character of their homeland. Frustrated by the Toronto art community’s patronage of European-style painting to the virtual exclusion of all else, the artists in the Group of Seven carved their own path by making a serious artistic commitment to the celebration of distinctly Canadian landscapes. This endeavour is widely viewed as having initiated Canada’s first national art movement.

While many in the Group of Seven sought escape from civilization in search of untouched wilderness, Casson’s preferred subjects were rural Ontario villages, especially in the north of the province. It was likely on a painting trip on the Magnetawan River in 1932 that he made oil sketches of St. George the Martyr Anglican Church. On returning to his Toronto studio, Casson referred to these sketches to create the large canvas titled Anglican Church at Magnetawan. His treatment of the building is both formal and reverential, allowing the church’s elegant silhouette to complement, rather than compete with, the majestic beauty of its surroundings. Interestingly, the point of view of the artist is from a hill at the back of the building, looking towards the Magnetawan River. This viewpoint places the church harmoniously within its rock and woodland setting. The fact that the painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1939 is testament to this work’s iconic potency.

St. George the Martyr Anglican Church continues to play an important role in the lives of the residents of Magnetawan, particularly in the summer months, and serves as a landmark for all who come and go by road or waterway. It continues to be a place of worship for local and seasonal residents who, as in the past, may arrive at church on a Sunday by water or by road.12 In 1980, the community celebrated the church’s centenary, refurbishing the exterior with new siding and installing new storm windows to improve the heating and to protect the existing stained-glass windows. The chancel steps were refurbished and a dorsal curtain was added to mark the occasion. A number of families in the region are descended from original free land grant settlers – the very people whose ambition and dedication carved the physical and social landscape of Magnetawan enjoyed then as today.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Jennifer Withrow in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2012

1 Archibald McKellar. Emigration to the Province of Ontario, Canada (pamphlet for the Canadian Department of Agriculture). Toronto: Government of Ontario, 1872. p. 1.

2 Thomas McMurray. The Free Grant Lands of Canada, from practical experience of bush farming in the free grant districts of Muskoka. Bracebridge: “Northern Advocate”, 1871. p. 34.

3 Officially called the Rosseau Nipissing Colonization Road.

4 Astrid Taim. Almaguin: A Highland History. Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 1998. p. 78.

5 John Webster Grant. A Profusion of Spires: Religion in Nineteenth-Century Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. p. 222.

6 W.H. Withrow. Life in a Parsonage, Or Lights and shadows of the itinerancy. London: T. Woolmer, 1885. p. 44.

7 McMurray, pp. 90-91.

8 Algoma Quarterly, 1875 Edition.

9 Algoma Missionary News, Volume IV, No 1, January – April 1881.

10 The Gothic style originated in northern France in the mid-12th century and was applied primarily to religious architecture. The name of the style was meant to be derogatory. When the style had fallen out of favour in Europe, the term Gothic was applied to associate it with the Goth people, a fifth-century East
Germanic tribe considered barbaric at the time.

11 St. George is sometimes referred to as “the Martyr.” According to early Christian writings, St. George was taken prisoner, tortured and subsequently beheaded by Diocletian in 304 BCE when he opposed the Emperor’s edict to exterminate all Christians.

12 Summer residents make up a significant part of the local population. An American flag has hung at St. George the Martyr alongside the Union Jack since 1953 to represent the many summer parishioners from the United States.