Old Kits Presbyterian Church (1911-1925)

cva-1187-37-st-stephens-united-church-exterior-ca-1950-artona

CVA 1187-37. Former Kitsilano Presbyterian Church exterior (later, St. Stephen’s United Church). ca 1950. Artona Studio photo. (Note: I have adjusted the exposure on this very over-exposed image).

A friend noticed this striking older building at 1855 Vine Street (between 3rd and 4th Avenues), which today consists of private condo units. She asked me if I’d encountered it and if I had any idea what the original purpose was of the structure. I replied negatively to both questions. But I certainly was intrigued!

I first checked online to see whether there was any low-hanging fruit there. I found some realty descriptions, such as this one, which noted that the building was of beaux-arts style, and was formerly “a Presbyterian Sabbath School”, built ca1911. Assuming this info was accurate, that was pretty impressive detail for a realty site. I learned elsewhere that in the 1970s, the building had housed the Vancouver Indian Centre (ancestor to the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre), until it occurred to those running the centre that Kitsilano wasn’t densely inhabited by aboriginal people in the 1970s (unlike the 1870s, comparatively speaking) and they moved nearer to where most of their constituency resided.

So, what went on between ca1911 and 1970?

I knew that most Presbyterian churches in Vancouver did not retain ‘Presbyterian’ in their names after 1925, due to the ‘church union’ movement which subsumed most Methodist, Congregationalist, and (roughly two-thirds of) Presbyterian congregations into a new protestant denomination to be known as the United Church of Canada. I had been to the Bob Stewart Archives (BSA) of UCC on a previous occasion, when it was still in the basement of the Iona Building at UBC. But since the Vancouver School of Theology had sold that building to UBC in 2014, I found that BSA had moved to Kerrisdale (across Yew Street from Ryerson United Church at the United Church Memorial Centre).

I set up an appointment with BC Conference Archivist, Blair Galston. At BSA, Blair had set aside a file full of documents pertaining to the former Kitsilano Presbyterian Church. From these papers I learned a great deal:

  • church got its start in 1906 in a small store building on Cornwall near Yew;
  • first pastor, Rev. Dr. Peter Wright, accepted a call to Kits in 1907. He retired from the post in 1913 and died in 1914. Subsequent full-time/permanent pastors of Kitsilano Presbyterian were Rev. A. D. MacKinnon (1914-20) and Rev Gordon Dickie (1922-39); Dickie left Kits to accept an appointment to Union College (the predecessor to Vancouver School of Theology);
  • congregation officially named Kitsilano Presbyterian Church on March 5/07 with 35 charter members;
  • by ca1909, the small store space had become too small for the congregation and lots were purchased “at the corner of 3rd Ave. and Vine St. for a new church”;
  • following the launch of a fundraising campaign, “proposals were received from various architects, and a plan made by Mr. H. B. Watson was selected for the Sunday School Hall, to be erected on the rear of the lots, leaving the 3rd Ave. side for a church building at a later date”. (I suspect, but have been unable to prove, that the Sunday School – or “Sabbath School” – structure was the only part of the church ever constructed. Church services seem to have been held in the Sunday School structure. There never was, as far as I can tell, any separate Presbyterian church building on 3rd Ave). Architect Henry Barton Watson also built St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church (2881 Main St), Queen Alexandra School 1300 E. Broadway), and Empress Hotel (235 E. Hastings Street), all still standing;
  • contract awarded June 1/10 to John Watson Bros. for a sum totalling $23,868.23;
  • building completed and first service held within it in January, 1911;
  • in 1917, despite loss of many young men during WWI, Kits Presbyterian was ‘having its day,’ with membership at 881 and the Sunday School roll having 467 people, including 32 teachers/officers.

Following the 1925 vote by the Kits church to join the union movement, Kitsilano Presbyterian Church was renamed St. Stephen’s United Church. This was not the same St. Stephen’s congregation that stands today at Granville St. near 54th. That (confusingly) is a different church with a different (and much briefer) history.

St. Stephens Kits apparently was unable to recapture its glory years. The number of people who attended the church dropped to such an extent over the years, that by 1952 St. Stephens United amalgamated with Crosby United Church and became Kitsilano United Church at the former Crosby building at 2nd Ave. and Larch Street. There were a couple of other twists and turns in the stories of these congregations which can be tracked here, if you are curious. But the short(er) story is that Kitsilano United ultimately became what today is Trinity United Church in a new-ish structure which the congregation shares with St. Mark’s Anglican Church at 2nd Ave. and Larch.

What happened to the original Kitsilano Presbyterian Church building? It’s unclear (to me, anyway) just what happened in the period 1952-1970. It’s possible that the building sat empty during those years. By 1970, the Vancouver Indian Centre had taken up occupancy (as mentioned earlier in this post). They vacated by 1979, and nothing much appears to have been done with the building in the years 1979-84.

By 1985, the word “heritage” had come into fashion in Vancouver. The Sinclair Centre project was in full swing, and (among other heritage projects), the former Kits Presbyterian Church building was being renovated (relatively sensitively) for private condominium residences (5 suites). And so it remains today, with the slightly snooty, non-Presbyterian name (in my opinion), Devon Court (Donald O’Callaghan, architect).

Shows renovation of former Kits Presbyterian Church/St. Stephen's United Church into private condo dwellings. In 'Real Estate Weekly,' Feb 15, 1985; no photo credit shown. From Bob Stewart Archives - BC Conference, United Church of Canada.

Shows renovation of former Kits Presbyterian Church/St. Stephen’s United Church into private condo dwellings. In ‘Real Estate Weekly,’ Feb 15, 1985; no photo credit shown. From Bob Stewart Archives – BC Conference, United Church of Canada.

Former Kits Presbyterian Church structure. Now condominium units. 2015. Author's photo.

Former Kits Presbyterian Church structure. Now condominium units. 2015. Author’s photo.

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