The History of Fraser Church, Tottenham
The story of Fraser Church begins when the congregation wasn’t in Tottenham, wasn’t called Fraser, and wasn’t quite a church. Irish Presbyterians were among the early settlers of Simcoe County. Even while facing the challenges of pioneer life they placed a high priority on attending public worship but in the 1820s there was no church in sparsely populated hills and fields of Tecumseth. The nearest church was at the Scotch settlement in the neighbouring township of West Gwillimbury. The congregation there, probably the first in Simcoe County, was organized in 1821 by the Rev. William Jenkins. At this time he was a minister of the Synod of the Canadas, a Canadian Presbyterian denomination which was the forerunner of the United Presbytery, and later United Synod of Upper Canada. Based in Richmond Hill, Rev. Jenkins traveled extensively and only occasionally visited the West Gwillimbury congregation. This continued until the Rev. Peter Ferguson arrived from Scotland in 1830 and was inducted to the charge by the United Presbytery of Upper Canada in the spring of the following year. As the local population grew, the congregation was able to establish multiple meeting locations in the neighbouring townships of Tecumseth and Essa. It was likely around this time that settlers in western Tecumseth were blessed to have a minister regularly preach the in their area, laying the foundation for a future congregation.
The situation was looking promising for the Presbyterians in Simcoe County until their new minister left in the spring of 1832 to serve another church in Esquising (near Milton). The congregation then faced the problem of finding a replacement. By this time there was a theological debate in Presbyterian circles concerning the relationship between the church and state. While many Presbyterians believed it was appropriate, and even desirable, for a church to receive money from the government, others had adopted the voluntary principle which accepted only voluntary contributions. This debate affected the United Synod. While the majority of ministers believed they were being treated unfairly by the Upper Canadian government for not receiving a share from the clergy reserves with their Church of Scotland brethren, Rev. Jenkins and Rev. James Harris of York supported volutarism.
The issue also divided the Simcoe County congregation. The members living outside of West Gwillimbury were voluntarists, whereas those living in the West Gwillimbury Scotch Settlement were mostly not. As a result, the West Gwillimbury group voted to find a minister of their own from the grant-receiving Church of Scotland. The remaining congregants then held their own meeting and voted unanimously to stay within the United Synod of Upper Canada. Despite this formal division, the two congregations shared the use of the original meeting house in the Scotch Settlement.
The volunarist congregation proceeded to seek a minister. On October 9 of the following year, James Howey of Ireland was ordained and inducted to the charge through the United Synod. His ministry was very short, however, has he had contracted tuberculosis and became too sick to complete his first worship service. The congregation carried on without the services of their minister or any support from the United Synod which had already begun to seek a merger with the Church of Scotland. It would be more than a year before help would arrive through another Presbyterian body, the Missionary Presbytery of the United Secession Church of Scotland. This small band of missionaries had originally planned to work with the United Synod of Upper Canada, but learning of its plan to join the Church of Scotland, they decided to form their own presbytery adhering to the voluntary principle. They began establishing congregations mostly west of Toronto but sent the struggling Simcoe County congregation two Nova Scotian missionaries in turn. On March 27, 1835, being appreciative of the support and following Rev. Howey’s dying request, the congregation voted unanimously to join the Missionary Presbytery. Two months later they sent a letter to the second missionary requesting that he return to become their minister. Although this meant giving up his original mission of reaching Gaelic-speaking Scots, he accepted the invitation and began serving the congregation on August 9, 1835. He settled near Bond Head and donated land for a new church and cemetery (with the original church later being sold to the Church of Scotland congregation). He was officially inducted on June 17, 1836 and soon organized the Presbyterians in West Gwillimbury, Essa, and Tecumseth into three congregations. That minister was the Rev. William Fraser.
Before a church was build in western Tecumseth, worship was held at the home of James Ellison on the Second concession. But even after Rev. Fraser’s arrival, services took place there only once a month due to his other preaching responsibilities. After three new elders were ordained on July 12th, 1836, the Presbyterians in Tecumseth could finally make decisions and function as a distinct congregation. The church transitioned from monthly to weekly worship and within four years grew from 5 to 28 members. An acre of land was purchased on the 3rd Concession, just northwest of the Ellison home, and by the early 1840s a log church had been built. By 1856 the congregation’s growth justified becoming a single point. A new frame church was constructed around 1860, which served the congregation until the move in 1881 to the current brick church in Tottenham. By the 1930s the church was raised to create a downstairs hall. In 2001 the back end was extended to increase the sanctuary and create a nursery space downstairs. The newest addition, an accessible entrance and lift, was added on the south side in 2014. However, the main structure from 1881 still stands as one of the oldest church buildings in New Tecumseth.
In official records the congregation was simply referred to by its location, “Tecumseth”. This later became “1st Tecumseth” when a new congregation, “2nd Tecumseth” was started in Beeton in 1859. According to local history it was also called “Ellison’s Church” in the early days, after the congregation’s original host (pictured left). On November 24, 1885, the congregation was officially named “Fraser Church” in honour of the minister who had arrived 50 years earlier and organized an enduring congregation from the settlers who first gathered for prayer and praise at the Ellison home.
Former Ministers and Years of Service
1822-1830 Rev. William Jenkins
1830-1832 Rev. Peter Ferguson
1833-1835 Rev. James Howey
1835-1856 Rev. William Fraser
1858-1862 Rev. John F. A. Sykes Fayette
1868-1873 Rev. Robert Moodie
1874-1880 Rev. James A. McConnell
1882-1885 Rev. D. H. McLennan
1886-1888 Rev. Thomas Wilson
1889-1895 Rev. J. McD. Duncan
1896-1908 Rev. Peter Nicol
1909-1919 Rev. Hugh D. McCuaig
1920-1925 Rev. James Nevin McFaul
1926-1944 Rev. William T. Cranston
1945-1947 Rev. Robert Jenkins
1947-1955 Rev. Joseph Reay Duke
1956-1964 Rev. Joseph E. Taylor
1969-1981 Rev. Basil P. Dass
1985-1988 Rev. Frederick Shaffer
1988-1995 Rev. James McLenaghen
1998-2002 Rev. Bryn MacPhail
2004-2009 Rev. John Fair
The Rev. Jonathan Dennis has been the minister of Fraser Church since November, 2010.
Fraser Church has also been served through the years by a number of theology students and presbytery appointed ministers.