St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church, located at York Mills and Old Yonge Street at North York, is celebrating its bicentennial next year. It’s the second-oldest Anglican church in Toronto. The oldest church is St. James Cathedral, a parish as well as a cathedral. A church on King and Church Streets in downtown Toronto, St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church was founded in 1807. In its York Mills-Old Yonge Street district, St. John’s Church has been located on Don Ridge Drive since 1816.
Prior to the construction of the church, missionaries from St. James visited the area. In the beginning, St. John’s was a 10 by 20 meter frame church constructed from trees felled from the three-acre property. It was donated by Joseph Shepard and his wife. The building was heated by a wood stove. For the first ten years of the street’s existence, only this church and a nearby Friends Meeting House were accessible from Yonge Street, a distance of forty miles, since it stretched from the town of York (Toronto) to Lake Simcoe.
As the wooden church deteriorated over time, it was replaced in 1843 with a brick one, and it has since evolved into the structure we see today. John G. Howard drew up his plans for the new church, presenting it as a gift to Toronto two years later. A tower and an organ loft were previously included in the original dimensions of 12 by 18 meters. It was a Gothic-style building. There was a contract price of £632.00.
St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church not only holds the distinction of being the first church in North York, but is also well known for its barrel organ, the only one of its kind in Canada. It is played by cranking a barrel rather than an organist as is the case with a pipe organ. A musical piece is encoded onto a wooden barrel (cylinder). There are three barrels on the St. John’s organ, each holding ten tunes. Installed in 1847, this organ cost £80 10s 6d to import from England.
Bill Dennis, the church’s historian, says that the church’s main instrument was a barrel organ until the 1860s, when a small finger organ was installed. 1928 saw the installation of a pipe organ.
John Page Squire, St. John’s sexton played the barrel organ for 69 years, ending in 1930. The church bells were also rung by him, the graveyard tended, the church kept in good condition, and he dug graves into his eighties. Prior to electric lighting, he had to take care of several dozen coal oil lamps. He was the oldest sexton in Canada. Only six weeks after retiring, he passed away in January 1931. For three months afterwards, his organ, which he loved, was kept silent in his memory.
Seven-year-old Cornelius van Nostrand, a United Empire Loyalist from Long Island who immigrated to Canada in 1797, was buried in the graveyard as the first person buried there. There are about ninety graves in the family plot. York Mills’ acacia trees were allegedly rooted from cuttings that Van Nostrand brought to his Long Island home. During the boy’s burial, slaves were still being sold in York County, whose seat was Toronto, which was mostly still forested.
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