West Vancouver Presbyterian Church History
(First printed in the “Food for the Soul” cook book in 2001)
The seeds for a Presbyterian church in West Vancouver were sown in 1908, when an esteemed local resident John Lawson invited the Rev. W. A. Davidson from Vancouver to an assembly at Hollyburn House. Mr. Lawson had bought the oceanside house at the foot of 17th Street three years earlier from another man of North Shore renown – John Thomas, better known as ‘Navvy Jack’.
So, on September 20 that year, thirty-three faithful gathered in the house, which was also the Lawson family home. The energetic group organized a mission, and arranged for divinity students from Westminster Hall to conduct a worship service every second week. The first few services were so well attended, however, that the congregation decided to convene every Sunday afternoon.
Travelling to West Vancouver in that pre-Lions Gate Bridge era was an adventurous exercise, and each Sunday Mr. Lawson would fetch the preacher in his boat Aoma for the trip across the bay. On one memorable voyage, the young minister fell overboard and had to be fished out. One can imagine the scene when the ‘Reverend Young Gentleman’ mounted the pulpit dressed in the older Mr. Lawson’s clothes!
Chiming a warm note of brotherhood, the first flock included not just Presbyterians, but Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists – and later, a few Roman Catholics – all worshipping freely together. This ecumenical mix was reflected in the Sunday School that opened its doors to twenty-two children on December 13, 1908.
Then in January 1909, a separate Presbyterian congregation was established under a Board of Managers, all by saintly coincidence with the Christian name John – Messrs. Harte, Sinclair, Treare and the aforementioned organizer-founder-captain Mr. Lawson. The first student missionary received a stipend of$4 per Sunday.
Meanwhile, the expanding congregation rapidly outgrew Hollyburn House, where the Lawson family not only welcomed people for services, but served refreshments, too. Indeed, the services proved so popular that people would row over from Vancouver and camp for the weekend. It was soon apparent that the group needed larger quarters for worship, and on January 6, 1910, the Hollyburn Ladies Aid was founded to raise funds for the project. The ladies organized two concerts that were instrumental in raising the money for the ambitious venture.
That summer, the group bought a 23′ by 50′ tent that was erected on a wood platform at a site provided by Mr. Lawson at the southeast corner of Marine Drive and 18th Street. At about the same time, the Methodists established their own place of worship in the home of W. C. Thomson on the waterfront at the foot of 20th Street.
When the heavy snows of 1910-11 destroyed the Presbyterian church tent, the Methodists helped build a timber structure, the Presbyterian Hall, on the original wood foundation. This, the first public building in the community, became a centre for various weekday activities, as well as a Presbyterian Church and Sunday School on the Sabbath. Following his ordination in 1912, the Rev. Alver MacKay was inducted as the first minister of West Vancouver Presbyterian Church, with other clergymen and parishioners travelling from North Vancouver to the induction service – all of them walking together along the old Keith Road, all the way from the ‘Capilano Car’ streetcar.
During the First World War, when the Presbyterian Hall served as Red Cross quarters for four years, services were held jointly with the Methodists. These devotions alternated between the Presbyterian Hall and the church the Methodists had built at the comer of Fulton Avenue and Marine Drive, just west of 22nd Street. Baptists continued to worship with the Presbyterians, as they had since the beginning.
Then, on November 19, 1919, the North Shore Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists agreed to unite as West Vancouver United Church, almost six years before the epoch-making National Church Union. As a result, the Presbyterian Hall and Methodist Church were moved to a new site at the comer of 21st and Esquimalt, where they were embodied in a new building-West Vancouver’s first United Church, and also one of the first United Churches in Canada.
Then followed a period of quiet, although a few Presbyterians continued to meet in private home. For a time, Sunday School was held in the Orange Hall at 22nd and Marine Drive, which also hosted regular Sunday afternoon services for the Session of St. Andrew’s Church of North Vancouver.
By 1947, the population of West Vancouver had reached 7,000. In 1950, the remaining Presbyterians sadly witnessed their beloved Presbyterian Hall demolished to make way for the present West Vancouver United Church, dedicated on March 18, 1951.
The loss of the hall that had served them so well and so long roused the Presbyterians to action. In May 1951, a census of Presbyterians in the district resulted in a program of occasional Sunday afternoon worship services, the first attended by twenty-eight people in the Masonic Hall. From this response, the congregation decided to hold services each week…in a dance hall, yet!…and the following Sunday afternoon, thirty-two faithful gathered at The Palms Ballroom in Dundarave to hear the Rev. McKay Esler preach. The Palms stood at 2433 Marine Drive, on the north side of the street. Since then, the location has been the site of Sager’s Maple Shop, the Dundarave Cafe, and now The Brit, the sponsors of the Vegetable Section of Food for the Soul.
Meanwhile, the Board of Managers searched for a suitable site on which to build a church. One suggestion was the property at 2433 Marine Drive…none other than The Palms!…which was duly purchased for $20,000, including piano, chairs, dishes and oil stove in the kitchen. From 1952, the small congregation worked diligently to convert The Palms into a church sanctuary. They panelled walls, installed new lighting, pews, meeting rooms and washrooms. New front doors were hung, and the gardens planted. Later, a small hall was built at the back of the property.
The building served adequately for thirteen years, and many recall the old ‘Palms’ church with happy remembrance. In 1965, though, the curtain rang down, with the Rev. Lindsay McIntyre preaching the last sermon in the old church.
In the meantime, the search for a new building or a new building site continued. Around September 1963, a building committee was formed consisting of Messrs. George Cunningham, R. Flitton, Don MacDonald, Archie McDougall, Bob Tod and Andrew Steele. The present site was soon chosen, approved and purchased. Archie McDougall, who ran the Vancouver office of UK engineering consultants, Sir William Halcrow & Partners, offered to do the engineering work for the new church without charge. This offer was accepted and McDougall teamed up with West Vancouver architect Hamish McIntyre. Design was well in hand by the end of 1963. An a-frame structure had been decided upon as this was reminiscent of the original tent as well as providing a sturdy earthquake resistant structure which was economic to construct. Hamish McIntyre improved the appearance by extending the northern set of beams beyond the others in the form of “praying hands”. J.C. Peney Construction of Victoria won the general construction contract and site preparation work started early in 1964. J.B. Milne, a member of the congregation also from Halcrow’s (and yes, the same J. B. Milne is the Convenor of this Cookbook Committee!) had been involved in the design and now took on the work of site supervision of the excavations and the reinforced concrete, which included most of the existing basement structure. Penny Construction did excellent work to completion about mid-1965.
Archie McDougall’s contribution to the church continued as he, along with others, made many of the original pews as well as the pulpit and the baptismal font. The West Vancouver Presbyterian congregation moved into their new building at 2893 Marine Drive, at the corner of 29th Street, in the autumn of 1965. Mr. McDougall’s widow, Christian, lives in the Kiwanis Care Centre in North Vancouver and remains a member of the congregation although she is no longer able to attend services. The aforementioned Don MacDonald and Bob Tod are still very involved members of our church.
Since that time, West Vancouver Presbyterian Church has navigated through periods of ebb and flow, with previous ministers that included the Rev. Dr. Bob Taylor, the Rev. Bill Perry (both deceased) and the Rev. Ian Victor, now ministering in Ottawa. But now, in 2001, as we embark on a journey with our new minister, the Rev. Paul Myers, we enter an era of hope and confidence, exemplified by the purchase of the house next door on 29th Street.
Our church has experienced a varied and colourful history in the 93 years since John Lawson organized that first service at Hollyburn House. It has played an important part in the spiritual and secular lives of thousands of West Vancouver Presbyterians of the past and present, not to mention North Vancouver Presbyterians as well.
With all proceeds from the sale of Food for the Soul supporting our Youth Outreach Ministry, West Vancouver Presbyterian Church will continue to serve a central role for future generations of our congregation.