A Brief History of St George’s Parish

A brief history of St George’s Parish 
Henry Roper

Little "Dutch" Church

Little “Dutch” Church

Our parish has a fascinating history, expressed in tangible form by the two church buildings that lie within its boundaries, both bearing the name St. George, and both of national significance. The first St. George’s the “Little Dutch [Deutsch] Church,” is the second oldest church in Halifax. Originally a small house, it was adapted for its present purpose in 1756 when it was moved to their burying ground in the northern suburb of the infant community by the German settlers known as “Foreign Protestants.”

It was consecrated in 1760 by John Breynton, rector of St. Paul’s, the first Halifax parish, in the name of St. George. The “Foreign Protestants’ were evangelical Lutherans in belief. In the absence of a pastor, lay leaders of the congregation led their services in German, with occasional visits from the clergy of St. Paul’s, to celebrate Holy Communion according to the rites of the Church of England. (More about the founding of the Little Dutch Church.)

The character of the Little Dutch Church changed during the latter part of the 18th century when the loyalist refugee Bernard Houseal, an evangelical Lutheran clergyman from New York, was appointed its first rector. To qualify for a stipend from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Houseal was ordained a priest of the Church of England. During his ministry from 1786-1799 the church attracted a large number of non-Germans. The tiny Little Dutch Church could no longer accommodate the needs of the growing population of Halifax’s north end.

Drawing by Rosemary Mason-Brown

Drawing by Rosemary Mason-Brown

To meet this need the congregation, with the support of the British government, embarked on the construction of a second St. George’s in 1800. Its circular Palladian design, like that of Halifax’s Town Clock, was a product of the architectural taste of Edward, Duke of Kent, commander of the forces in Nova Scotia and son of George III, who played an active role in the planning of the new building.

Originally perfectly round, a porch and chancel were added between 1822-1827, creating a structure, which, despite later alterations and additions, closely resembled what the visitor sees today.

St. George’s became Halifax’s second parish in 1827. Happily the first St. George’s, the Little Dutch Church, continued to be used for occasional services and also as a school. During much of the nineteenth century St. George’s was a centre of the evangelical wing of the Church of England under the leadership of Robert Fitzgerald Uniacke, rector from 1825 to 1870. Uniacke’s energy and drive led to the creation of church schools for the poor, many other philanthropic activities and the foundation of two daughter churches within the boundaries of the parish, St. Mark’s and St. John’s, later to become parish churches themselves.

Lifting the cupola on the restored church

Lifting the cupola on the restored church

During the twentieth century the composition of the St. George’s has changed as a result of the shrinking of the inner city’s population base. The church was sustained for many years by persons originally from Newfoundland who found a home at St. George’s during the ministry of Canon Henry Ward Cunningham, rector from 1900- 1937. More recently the church has attracted increasing numbers of persons from all parts of the Halifax Regional Municipality drawn by its emphasis upon traditional Anglican liturgy and music centred upon the Book of Common Prayer.  Following the leadership of Canon G.W.A. Thorne (Rector 1990-2005), the current Rector, the Rev’d George Westhaver, and the congregation are committed to social outreach in the north end of Halifax following, in a contemporary context, the spirit of the ministry of R.F. Uniacke.

The Church faced what was perhaps the greatest crisis in its history when over 40% of the structure was destroyed by fire in June of 1994. The decision to re-build led to a wave of support from across Canada as well as from abroad. Sensitive restoration ensured that St. George’s has risen again to continue to serve the Halifax community as a centre for social outreach, a venue for musical and other artistic activities, but above all a place for the elevation and solace of the spirit.