Author: Ken Russell

Publication Date: 2011



Historic Guelph Norfolk Church V50P56
Norfolk Church exterior, ca. 1865.
(Image courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, Gordon Couling Collection, slide 11203).


Standing solidly at the base of Catholic Hill, in the shadow of the magnificent Church of Our Lady Immaculate, is another older, limestone church that for the past 155 years has served the citizens of Guelph well. The oldest extant worship space on its original foundation, Norfolk Street United Church was built in 1856 as a Wesleyan Methodist Church.


Many of the settlers who came to Guelph brought with them a strong religious faith, whether they came from the old country or the United States. We know little of where they worshipped in 1827 and 1828 when John Galt's town of Guelph was struggling to get a foothold in the wilderness. It was nine years later, in 1836, that there is a record of the beginning of the church in a "little red chapel" on property owned by Dr. Henry Orton on Nottingham Street. By 1839, the Canada Company had given land to the Methodists for building a church on the present site at the corner of Norfolk and Cork streets.


Quickly the members erected a frame building at that location, which faired well for the next 16 years. At that time Hutchison Clark, an architect from Hamilton (and future mayor), drew up plans for an impressive limestone church, 40 feet x 80 feet that was at the time the largest Methodist Church in southwestern Ontario.


Over the years the congregation grew in numbers and in stature and included Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, five mayors, city councillors, well-known business and town leaders, one judge and many doctors, lawyers and ministers. For 25 years (1879-1903) James Mills was President of the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) with twelve other OAC professors in the congregation. Edward Johnson began his operatic career in the choir in the late 1890s and Maud Stevenson went on to become world-renowned for her voice. Canada's Poet Laureate (self-professed) James Gay stood amongst us.


As with many Canadian churches, disaster has played a part in the storied history of this church and, if it was not for the valiant effort of Guelph's Fire Department, the church would not stand as magnificently as it does today. An event happened two years after the Centennial celebration at the church in 1938 that changed the church forever. The fire is recounted in the following article published in A Picture History of Guelph's Mother Church of Methodism.


Historic Guelph V50P58


"Valuable Organ and Choir Loft Destroyed, Decorations Ruined; Firemen Work in Intense Heat."


"Fire that began in the late hours of February 5, [has] ravaged half the interior of the church and destroyed the organ, choir loft, 213 anthems, choir robes, two pianos, half the seats, electrical fixtures, paintings, wall decorations, much of the new carpet, many windows and the pulpit.

Two Bell Telephone operators, Jean Aberdeen and Eva Tucker, walking along Cork St., saw flames and turned in the alarm at 10:35 P.M. Organist Harold Riddolls and caretaker Fred Knight had found everything in order earlier in the evening.

Flames, which created a furnace-like heat, started where two heating pipes come in close contact with beams below the organ and spread quickly throughout the church. Fire Chief Harold Sutton characterized the fire as one of the worst he had ever seen and the most dangerous from the standpoint of the firemen. Smoke that defied gas masks, fumes and terrific heat hampered the efforts of the firefights. Church officials praised the firemen who were able to confine the blaze to one section of the building.

Caretaker Fred Knight defied the smoke and raging flames to save the pulpit Bible, a smaller bible and a psalter [book of psalms]. In spite of flames licking around the pulpit the large Bible sustained neither a scorch nor mark of any kind."1


The Guelph Mercury reported on February 6, 1938:


Historic Guelph V50P60


"Church Burns, Loss in $30,000 - Organ valued at $25,000.00 Is Destroyed by Blaze in Guelph - Cause Undetermined."


"Damage estimated at $30,000 was caused by fire, which broke out in Norfolk United Church at 10:30 o'clock Saturday night.

A pipe organ, valued at $25,000 was completely destroyed by the flames, which were confined mainly in the choir loft.

The fact that the church is a stone structure contributed to its escape from even greater damage. Firemen battled the outbreak for two hours before getting it under control. The loss was due partly to smoke and water.

The Sunday school, housed in a wing adjoining the church, was not damaged, and services were held there today by the pastor, Rev. C. Elmer Kenny. The cause of the fire was not determined, though it is believed to have originated beneath the choir loft."


The Guelph Mercury reported on February 7, 1998:


Historic Guelph V50P61

Bible is Saved - Rescued Unharmed from Burning Church by Fred Knight, Caretaker.


"Valuable Organ and Choir Loft Destroyed, Decorations Ruined; Firemen Work in Intense Heat.

Damage Estimated as High as $30,000 as Blaze Sweeps Half of Interior of Norfolk Street United Church. Beautiful Interior Paintings, Pianos, Hundreds of Dollars in Music are Ruined by Blaze Which Turned Edifice Into Furnace - Gas Masks Useless as Firemen Work in Crews For Nearly Three Hours Before Extinguishing Flames.

Flames which created a furnace-like heat which blistered paint through a thick wall 75 feet away, and which repeatedly drove back firemen who worked under frightful conditions for three hours devastated half the interior of Norfolk Street Church Saturday night and early Sunday morning.

Characterized by Fire Chief Harold Sutton as one of the worst fires he had ever seen from the standpoint of firemen, the blaze destroyed the entire organ and choir loft, and caused other damage to a total which will not be far short of $30,000.

Beautiful interior paintings and decorations, done a year and a half ago at great expense, were completely ruined. All paint at a level higher than three feet from the floor is blistered and charred, and the east end of the church, including the pulpit, choir-loft, and organ, are completely destroyed. Two pianos, hundreds of dollars in music, and choir robes were ruined. Costly electric lighting fixtures above the blaze crashed to the floor, and many yards of new carpet were irretrievably spoiled."


Historic Guelph V50P62

Norfolk Street Methodist Church interior with choir and organ, 1905-1906.

(Image courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, Gordon Couling Collection, slide 10840).



Members of the city fire department are recovering today from the effects of their battle against the smoke, fumes, and terrific heat which they encountered in the church. Some burning substances created a smoke which defied gas masks, and since there was no oxygen in the building, this equipment which might have rendered their task much easier was useless. They fought the fire at a temperature which can only be realized by a sight of the charred paint at a point as far distant from the scene of the blaze as can be reached.


C. W. Caskey, inspector of the Ontario Fire Marshal's Department, came to Guelph yesterday to assist Chief Sutton in determining the cause of the fire, which has not been definitely established. Chief Sutton inclined to view that furnace pipes beneath the organ were responsible to some degree.


Two large pipes run directly beneath the organ, at only a short distance from the furnace and close to wooden beams. The chief pointed that over a period of years, the wood would become dried to a point where it would be little more than charcoal, and the slightest excess heat would be sufficient to ignite it. It might smolder for hours, and not burst into flame until it reached a crack which would admit a draft. Then the flames would spread rapidly.



Girls who were passing the church on the Cork Street side and who saw the glare of fire through the windows are believed to have turned in the alarm at 10:35 o'clock. The firemen battled steadily until 1:20 o'clock Sunday morning before they had the blaze under control. One man remained throughout the night watching the water-soaked debris.


It was pointed out that the fire must have broken out suddenly since at ten minutes after ten o'clock, the caretaker was in the church, and there was no threat of fire at that time. Harold Riddolls, organist, much of whose music was destroyed by the flames was also in the church playing the organ earlier in the evening.


When members of the fire department reached the blaze, they found the flames burning with fierce intensity in the choir loft. The flames, coming from underneath had evidently "mushroomed" until they reached the organ pipes, which acted as a flue causing the fire to roar with furnace-like intensity.


It was the heat which rendered the task of the firemen difficult. While they worked incessantly, the interior of the building grew steadily hotter, until it was almost impossible for a man to remain within it for more than a few seconds. The smoke and fumes from the burning substances of the organ made matters worse, filling the lungs of the firemen with what Chief Sutton said was practically carbon monoxide. They worked in shifts. When the heat and flames became unbearable for one crew, another would enter and in this manner they succeeded in extinguishing the blaze. Two lines of hose were run in, one in each of the side windows, nearest to the organ, and two constant streams of water were played on the flames. So dense was the smoke that visibility was reduced to a minimum making still more difficult the work. High praise for the firemen's work in the face of overwhelming difficulties was given, and wonderment was expressed at their success in confining the fire to one section.


Only a normal fire was burning at the time the flames broke out, and there was no excess heat in the pipes which are blamed for the outbreak. Chief Sutton stated quite definitely that there is no suspicion of incendiarism.


Historic Guelph V50P64

Norfolk Street Methodist Church interior, seen from balcony, ca. 1900.

(Image courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, Gordon Couling Collection, slide 11204).



Norfolk Street Church is one of the older religious edifices in the city, and its organ was known as one of the best in Guelph, a fact which makes the loss more serious than ever. Only a year and a half ago, the entire church auditorium was redecorated. The walls were painted throughout, and a number of beautiful religious murals were painted on the walls. All of those were completely ruined, as were the valuable carpets close to the organ. The pulpit, choir stalls, choir room, organ manual, pipes and equipment were destroyed.


An extraordinary feature of the blaze was the fact that while all the paint was blistered above a certain level only those seats near to the scene of the fire were affected. From halfway in the auditorium to the back of the church, they were undamaged. In the balcony, however, the paint was in the same condition as if it had been burned with a blow torch. All around the railing, every chair, every scrap of woodwork, and the walls were charred and blistered. Even in the stairway which is separated by a thick wall from the gallery, the paint was blistered and running. Some of this was caused by steam which rose in clouds when the water was poured on the raging fire.


It was stated today that figures reveal that of any twelve churches in which fire starts, only one is saved. Only constant work under almost impossible conditions prevented destruction of the whole church.


Historic Guelph V50P65

Norfolk Street Methodist Church organists and choir leaders, ca. 1900. ldentified on the image: (1) William Wheatley Sr.; (2) Mrs. A.O. Bucham; (3) Ivor A. Thomas; (4) Mrs. Alfred Smith; (5) Mrs. (Rea.) l. W. Cooley (formerly Miss Emily Keeling); (6) L. B. Harrington, Bradford, Pa.; (7) Mrs. Thos. H. Mclntyre, Toronto (formerly Miss Carrie Stevenson); (8) B, Sauage; (9) Chas. R. Crowe; (10) C. M. Pasmore.
(Image courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, Gordon Couling Collection, slide 11223).



"It was the worst fire - the most dangerous fire - I have ever attended from the standpoint of the firemen," said Chief Sutton. "Oxygen was almost entirely excluded from the building. The atmosphere was practically carbon monoxide. We are all suffering from sore lungs today. The men couldn't stand the heat and they could hardly see for smoke. We tried to use our gas masks, but the lack of oxygen rendered them useless, although they are general purpose masks."


Services yesterday were held in the Sunday School room, and they probably will be for some time, since the church proper may require a fairly long period. While the church building is adequately covered by insurance, the loss of the organ, which is the heaviest, is only partially covered. Stained glass windows throughout the entire church, while not damaged except in two or three instances, are completely spoiled through the fact that the intense heat melted the lead of the small diamond panels. It is doubtful if they can be repaired, and it may be necessary to replace them.


"It comes as a hard blow, particularly as it is only a year and a half ago since we decorated the church," remarked Crown Attorney J. M. Kearns, K. C., one of the church officials.


Historic Guelph V50P67

Norfolk Street Church, ca. 1900.

(Image courtesy of Guelph Public Library C6-0000638).


The most amazing part of this story is the fact that it took only nine months for the completion of a major re-construction project in a badly fire ravaged church sanctuary. Here is the account of this feat from the Guelph Mercury, Saturday, November 19, 1938:



"Atmosphere of Reverent Beauty Achieved in Reconstruction of Old Edifice at Norfolk and Cork Street - Chancel is Most Striking Change

Out of the ashes and destruction left by a fire, which swept the interior nine months ago, has arisen a new and more beautiful Norfolk Street Church.

The reconstructed and redecorated edifice will be opened and formally dedicated at services, which will be conducted tomorrow morning by Rev. C. Elmer Kenny, minister of the church, when the congregation will worship in their new and beautiful surroundings after nearly a year during which services have been held in the Sunday school.

The redecoration of the church is a triumph, and the result is an atmosphere of reverent beauty, which has been achieved by simple means, yet which has an enduring quality evident from the first glance."



Perhaps the most striking change lies in the building of a chancel. The dais, which formerly occupied the central position, was destroyed by the fire, and in its place has been built a chancel with choir stalls on each side. At its end are oak reredos in front of which is the communion table, also of oak, and backed by a Trichair.


*Centrally placed above the reredos is a stained glass window of great beauty. Behind it are controllable lights, which display its richness and color to the best advantage. It was installed as a memorial window by the Ladies Association of the church.

The entrance has been altered noticeably. From the front door, one enters the "narthex" a long vestibule, which is screened from the body of the church by oak paneling and leaded glass. Doors lead through this into the church. Down the central aisle, up the chancel steps, and along the chancel to the communion table runs a deep-piled, wine-colored carpe! which accentuates the richness of the oak and the fawn stippled walls, which are in a texture finish.


Remove Side Galleries

Another striking change lies in the removal of the side galleries. Only a balcony along the back remains, and it has been deepened and beautified through an error. A groove and tongue partition, which had stood for many years, was removed by accident, and it revealed a square chamber of the tower, with a stained glass window, which has been unnoticed for many years. Its effect is to give depth and sweeping lines to the gallery, which, in its new treatment, adds to the impressiveness of the rebuilt interior.

New pews, in plain oak, have been installed throughout the church. They are designed in a manner which makes for comfortable seating, and while those in the gallery are necessarily plain, to provide for the profile of the stairs, those in the body of the church are paneled at the aisles, and handsomely carved.

Concealed lighting illuminates the chancel, while the main lights are of a design which conforms with the new windows. The theme of the architecture is Georgiary with broad sweeping arches in the chancel, the windows, and the organ chambers. All the woodwork is in the same plain oak - a rich, dark wood - as are the pews.

Historic Guelph V50P69NorfoIk Street United Church facade detail with datestone and rose windout, ca. 1972,
Image courtesy of Wellington County Museum & Archives, Gordon Couling Collection, slide 11201


Windows of Cathedral Glass

The windows, except those which are stained glass in the tower and chancel, are of cathedral glass, leaded, and with a trefoil de- sign at the top. The sweep down the whole height of the walls from near the ceiling to the paneled wainscoting.

The walls are shaded as they rise towards the ceiling, which is an off-white, and which is constructed of a material which has acous- lic properties. Flanking the chancel are oak pulpit and lectern.

Heating equipment is concealed, and with a new boiler, is exceed- ingly efficacious. The seating capacity is approximately 600.

Rev. David A. Maclennan, B.A., B.D., of Eaton Memorial Church Toronto, will conduct evening services tomorrow.

Norfolk Street Church is one of the city's oldest edifices. Present building was erected in 1855, but the one which preceded it was the first stone church built in Guelph [sic]. The lot on the corner of Norfolk and Cork streets was deeded to the congregation by the Canada Company 102 years ago, and the first building was of wood.

In February of this year, fire broke out early Sunday morning and completely destroyed the interior.

A full reprint from the Norfolk Sunday Service bulletin of November 20, 1938 is printed below.

"The Lord hath done great things for us
whereof we are glad"

One hundred and one years ago, December 1836, the lot on which our church stands was presented to the Wesleyan Methodists by the Canada Company. During the century of its existence it has been the centre of worship for thousands of mery women and children who made an invaluable contribution to the life of this city, our country and across the seas.

On Saturday night, February 5, 1938, this church was ravaged by fire to such an extent that extensive alterations were necessary.

A reconstruction committee was appointed, composed of: H. Quarmby, Chairman; A.G. Jeffery, Secretary-Treasurer; John Armstrong, H.E. Cosford, G.S. Foster, J.M. Kearns, K.C., Mrs. Wyles, and the minister, Rev. C.E. Kenny. Messrs. Horwood and White were engaged as architects.


The results of their labours is seen in the church we re-open and re-dedicate today.

Organ Recital - to commemorate the opening of the new organ
Monday Evening, December 19, 1938 at 8:15 o'clock
Minister - Rev. C. Elmer Kenny, B.A.
Choirmaster - James R. Pears
Organist - Harold Riddolls, A.T.C.M.
Charles Franklin Legge, Guest Organist Madeline Kelly, Contralto
Ada Richardson Legge, Soprano


Charles Franklin Legge

Charles Franklin Legge was born in St. Catharine, Ontario, in 1891. Educated at Collegiate Institute, St. Catharines; studied piano with W.T. Thompson of Ridley College, studied organ with Kaffen- berger, A.G.O., Buffalo, N.Y., also with Dr. Healey Wiltaru Toronto; studied theory under Angelo Read, Buffalq New York. Has been church organist since 1908, serving Central Methodist Church, Westminster United Church and Old St. Andrew's Churcþ all in Toronto, Has been organist on radio programmes for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commissiory since 1929; member of the Canadian College Organists; founder and president Franklin Legge Organ Company, Limited, Toronto.


Description of the Organ

The organ, installed by the Franklin Legge Organ Company, Limited of Toronto, is a three-manual electric instrument of 40 stops arranged as follows:

GreatOrgan- 8 stops
Swell Organ - 10 stops
Choir Organ - 10 stops
Tuba Organ- 3 stops
Pedal Organ- 9 stops
Tablet couplers - 20
Adjustable pistons - 23

Chimes and Harp

The Swell division and part of the Great speak into the Chancel, while the remainder of the Great, Pedal, Choir and Tubas are in two chambers speaking directly into the nave. The console is in the English style, with ivory knobs and tablet couplers, in an Oak case beautifully trimmed with walnut.


Below is the full reprint of article wdtten by Norfolk's organist for the Guelph Mercury, Saturdap December 77, 1938.

Large Organ for Norfolk Street United Church

by James R. Pears

An epoch in the musical history of the this city will be established when the large organ at present being installed at Norfolk Street United Church by the Franklin Legge Organ Company, Ltd. of Toronto, is dedicated and played for the first time on Sunday, December 18.

The organ is placed in three large cement chambers over the north and south choir aisles. The choir, tuba organ, and harp speak through specially constructed shutters into the transepts and chancel from over the north choir aisle; the pedal and great organs speak into the chancel and transepts from over the south choir aisle, while the swell organ and chimes over the south choir aisle speak directly into the chancel. By the drawing of various stops, the chimes may be transferred from the swell to the choir, great, or pedal organs.

The harp will speak on either the choir or swell organ while tuba organ may be transferred to the great organ adding greatly to the majesty of the full organ.

The organ is a four manual instrument played upon three keyboards. There are nearly 3,000 pipes, the lowest, sounding one octave below the lowest C on the piano, while the highest will sound one octave above the highest C on the piano.

The organ is not entirely a new one, but, like a violin, is all the better for age. The action, console, and all parts of the old organ which might depreciate with time, wear, and age, are all entirely new. The instrument as it stood in the Egyptian Court in phila- delphia has been played by the greatest organists in the world.

 Historic Guelph V50P73

Large Gathering Remains to Hear Music of Organ

Guelph Mercury, Tuesday, December 20, 1938

Beautiful music played on the new organ at Norfolk Street United Church last evening, kept a large gathering in the church for al- most an hour after the service closed.

The beautiful new organ which was dedicated at yesterday morn- ing's service by the minister, Rev. C. Elmer Kenny, was played by Franklin Legge, Toronto, the man who constructed the instru- ment. Mr. Legge played the music during the morning and even- ing services.

At the morning service, Bessie Bell sang a beautiful solo, "The Lord's Prayer," by Mallotte.

Last evening Campbell McArthur was the soloist and he contrib- uted the lovely "The Lord is My Light" by Allison. The choir ren- dered a number of beautiful hymns during both services.

During the morning service, Mr. Legge played the "Offertory In- terlude" and a postlude by Toccatto. tn the evening he rendered the beautiful "Andante Cantabile," by Tchaikovsky, Bach's Offertory Interlude and a tone poem, "Findlandia," by Sibelius.

One of the numbers sung by the choir was "O Praise God in His Holiness," by the choirmaster James R. Pears.

Twenty years later, in July 1958 the organ was replaced by a newer $30,000 Cassavant eiectro-pneumatic instrument with 1,844 pipes, which is still doing yeoman duty every Sunday at Norfolk Street United.

Major renovation occurred at the church in the 1980s. The organ loft was completely refurbished in 1980. A gas furnace was in- stalled in 1981., which replaced the oil furnace that had been installed in 1957.

In 1984, in preparation for the Sesquicentennial celebrations for the churcþ the interior of the sanctuary was again repainted and was re-carpeted in 1985. Also in 198s was the installation of a stained glass window on the Cork Street side of the church and considerable monies were also spent that year to enabre the building to meet the new fire code regulations.

In early 2001, the rest of the beautiful stained glass windows were completed giving Guelph citizens an excellent space for worship and community events.

Though everything else has changed, the Church remains the same, a silent reminder that we need God as much today as our forefa- thers did 175 years ago. It stands as a visible link with the past, reminding us of the faitþ courage and perseverance of the men and women who first settled here.

"People Serving God through Serving people since 1936"



  1. Barbara and David curzon, eds. Norfolk street llnited church of Canada: 150 years and growing: a picture history of Guelph's mother church of Methodism. (Guelph, Ont.: Norfolk Street United Church of Canada, 1985).



Guelph Mercury clippings: February 7, 1938; November 19, 1938; December 17, 1938; December 20, 1938

Norfolk Street United Church Archives

Curzon, Barbara and David eds. Norfolk street lrnited Church of Canada: 150 years and growing: a picture history of Guelph's mother church of Methodism. Guelph, Ont.: Norfolk Street United Church of Canada 1985.

Sunday Service bulletin of November 20, 1938