St. Andrew’s Church in Oakville, Ont., celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. Photo courtesy of St. Andrew’s parish

All in the family at St. Andrew’s for seven generations

  • May 18, 2015

Over its 175 years, St. Andrew’s Church in Oakville, Ont., has played an important role in many families’ histories. Terry Murphy-Johnson’s family has a connection to the parish that goes back 163 years.

Affectionately called “The White Church,” the parish celebrated its first Mass on Oct. 26, 1840. The church was originally built as a mission church to serve the Irish-Catholic dock workers that lived in the area at the time. St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, was chosen as the patron saint of the church in honour of George K. Chisholm, a Scottish lumber merchant who donated the land to the community.

“It’s very much like our family,” said Murphy-Johnson. “It’s so nice to have been able to go to this beautiful church and this beautiful community all our lives.”

Murphy-Johnson’s family first settled in Oakville in 1852. Her great-great-great grandmother Anna Maria O’Connor was baptized by a mission priest from Dundas, Fr. John O’Reilly. The church’s first resident pastor, Fr. Jeremiah Ryan, arrived in 1859.

Five generations of the family have been married at St. Andrew’s. Fr. Ryan married Anna Maria O’Connor and John O’Donnell on May 1, 1871. The couple’s daughter was married in 1896, their granddaughter in 1926, their great-granddaughter in 1952, and Murphy-Johnson and her husband, Michael, were married in 1988.

Because the family home is a block north of the church, family members have always been active in the church. James O’Connor, father of Anna Maria, built the church’s original altars and communion rails. Terry’s great grandfather was in charge of lighting the Quebec stoves early Sunday morning before central heating was installed mid-century. Terry’s great aunt was the church organist. Her grandfather sang in the choir.

“My mom was in the choir her whole life,” said Murphy-Johnson. “Around 1950, my father moved to Oakville and saw her in the choir. So, they met in St. Andrew’s Choir and we’re still in the choir today.”

Because of the rich family history in the community, Murphy-Johnson has always had a fascination with studying the history of the church. In the early 1980s she was doing some research on a historical house when she decided to look into the church’s history. She discovered that her great aunt had collected many historical documents on the church as well.

In 1990, Murphy-Johnson’s English professor at the University of St. Michael’s College, David Dooley, was working on a book on the church’s history in anticipation of the 150th anniversary. Now, she and her husband have taken up the mantle to be the church’s record-keepers and resident historians.

“The wonderful thing about St. Andrew’s is that it’s open all the time,” said Murphy-Johnson. “We did produce a four-page timeline, so we did try to shorten it so it could be used as a walking tour of the church.”

Fr. Peter Coughlin, former pastor at St. Andrew’s, originated this walking historical tour to celebrate the anniversary. Now retired, Coughlin was the church’s pastor for 14 years.

“The parish has been really great. It was developing great spirituality,” he said. “When I went there in 2001, it was basically all senior citizens. I worked at building it up as a real community of faith.”

Coughlin encouraged the growth of the church groups. He wanted to see the church open to more people in the community.

“I would sit in my office and watch people go in and out of the church all day,” he said.

Coughlin oversaw the church’s major renovations in 2010 to expand the sacristy, the crying room for mother and baby, the confession room and the basement meeting rooms. The church is famous for being Oakville’s oldest original church building.

“The main church is still original structure,” said Coughlin. “We had to rebuild and restrengthen the walls over the years. The stained glass is still the original as well.”

The theme for the anniversary year is “Faith in Action.” Coughlin said it is about meeting people where they are.

St. Andrew’s anniversary Mass and dinner was celebrated May 9 with Hamilton Bishop Douglas Crosby celebrating. The updated St. Andrew’s history document by Murphy-Johnson and her husband will be published in mid-June.

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