ln 1860 an entire church was imported from England to become known unofficially as “the Iron Church” but more properly as The Church of St. John. It was the first consecrated Anglican church in British Columbia.
Lady Angela Burdett Coutts was an heiress to the Coutts private bank fortune and a devout Church of England benefactor. She seemed to have little confidence that Victoria could build a church so she had one shipped in pieces around the Horn to the new colony, along with a prefabricated rectory, a Bishop and two workmen.
Bishop George Hills named the imposing church after his former parish in Yarmouth, England—St. John—and it presided over the corner of Douglas and Fisgard Streets until the Hudson Bay Company made an offer the church couldn’t refuse.
So parishioners commissioned a new church to be built at Mason and Quadra Streets and it opened on Dec. 22, 1912. In 1960 a fire, blamed on an electrical fault, gutted the building. Little was saved but the rector, who then lived next door, managed a 4 a.m. rescue of altar hangings that had come from Westminster Abbey, One set had been used for the 1937 Coronation of King George VI and the other for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The latter adorned the altar in 2013 for the induction service of our current rector, the Rev. Alastair McCollum.
The bell and stone baptismal font, which had been brought from the “Iron Church,” survived the fire and are used to this day.
Worship continued in the Hall until the church was rebuilt with glorious new stained glass windows. It reopened in 1964.
The church has seen 10 vicars over its last 153 years. The rectory no longer houses the vicar’s family but is a bustling hub for parish activities. A church hall was opened in 1954 and St. John’s Court was built in 1975 to provide 18 units of affordable housing to seniors.
The church can seat 490 parishioners and has 450 families on its parish roll. It is named for St. John who wrote Revelations, not for the St. John who was one of Jesus’s disciples.
Over the years its mission has changed so that much of its work today concentrates on the challenges of meeting the needs of the inner city although parishioners come from a wide area. Indeed, at most services, the parishioners say, “In the heart of Victoria…we celebrate Christ.”
In winter the church runs a weekly shelter for homeless youths, and is open every night for older street folk. It operates an emergency food supply that serves about 400 families and individuals each month. Parishioners cook regularly for visitors to a nearby youth centre.
This emphasis on social justice was nurtured by The Ven. Robert MacRae, who arrived in 1977, fresh from leading a boycott of Nestle products, because of that company’s promotion of baby formula in developing countries. The tradition continued under the stewardship of The Rev. Harold Munn (1998-2011), who was deeply involved and outspoken on issues of homelessness.
The Rev. Larry Scyner came out of retirement to take charge while the congregation sought its new rector. “I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support of the congregation during the interregnum,” he said. “This made the task so much more fulfilling and meaningful.”
St. John the Divine has also broken ground in its welcome to people who are gay or transgendered. This summer it became the first Anglican church in the Diocese of Vancouver Island to bless a marriage between two gay parishioners. Scyner said: “It was the culmination of many years of hard work by the congregation, and it was a joy to have had even a small part in this.”
It also offers meeting space to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
St. John’s is becoming something of a cultural hub. St. John’s has a long musical tradition, renting space to such groups as the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra and Pacific Opera Victoria. It is also home to many glorious concerts and offers support to young musicians through its organ and choral scholarship programs.