Knox Church is the second oldest Presbyterian congregation in Ottawa. It has occupied its present location at the corner of Elgin and Lisgar since only 1932 but its history stretches back more than a century and a half. At the time of its founding the city was a small, unruly lumbertown, still called Bytown, with one church each for the Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Wesleyans and Methodists. The year was 1844 and Presbyterians in Scotland were much disturbed by state interference in the church. The controversy spread to Canada. In sympathy with this Free Church movement, a small group decided to leave St. Andrew’s Presbyterian and start a new church.
Knox’s first home was at the corner of Daly Avenue and Cumberland Street in a plain frame building measuring 40 by 60 feet. Seating was increased three times in the first 15 years. Then, in 1865, part of the congregation left the overcrowded church to form what is today Dominion-Chalmers. These considerable growing pains finally forced the congregation to the realization that it needed a larger building. Although some church members opted to remain behind in what is today St. Paul’s Eastern United, land was acquired and a new church built on the prestigious City Hall Square. Opened for worship in 1874, the new stone church was one of the most beautiful places of worship then in the city, its bold central gable flanked by two towers and three entrances across the front, each with its own steps and parapets. The interior featured 12 stained glass windows. Making no mistake this time about size, seating was provided for 1,150 people.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s dream for a more beautiful nation’s capital led to Knox’s relocation to its third and current home. A wider Elgin Street was key to Mackenzie King’s vision and Knox was awkwardly in the way. The church was expropriated and demolished. The current building, designed by architect Henry Sproatt, was opened for worship in 1932. The exterior is distinguished by a square tower and walls of local Nepean fieldstone. The stunning interior features tall windows, pointed arches and colonnades, the stone imported from quarries in France and Italy. A stained glass window was installed in the chancel in 1955, and another over the balcony in 1977.
The 150th anniversary of this congregation was celebrated in 1994 with a commissioned piece by Canadian composer Gerald Bales. It can be heard on the CD by its name Laudate Dominum recorded by D. Mervyn Games with the Senior Choir of Knox and Barbara Clark, C.M. and the Rideau Lakes Brass Quintet, in October 2007.
Knox has been served by 15 ministers since its founding, as follows:
- Rev. Dr. Thomas Wardrope, 1844 – 1869
- Rev. William MacLaren, 1870 – 1873
- Rev. Francis W. Farries, 1875 – 1893
- Rev. James Ballantyne, 1894 – 1896
- Rev. David Millar Ramsay, 1897 – 1913
- Rev. Robert B. Whyte, 1916 – 1923
- Rev. E. Lloyd Morrow, 1923 – 1926
- Rev. Robert Johnson, 1927 – 1947
- Rev. Colin Miller, 1948 – 1955
- Rev. H. Douglas Stewart, 1956 – 1972
- Rev. Malcolm McCuaig, 1972 – 1985
- Rev. Donald F. Collier, 1986 – 1992
- Rev. Dr. Stephen A. Hayes, 1993 – 2004
- Rev. Douglas Kendall, 2005 – 2009
- Rev. David Thom, 2011 – 2013
Until 1955, there was no stained glass in the building. The window in the chancel was then installed, and consists of over 20,000 pieces of glass. Designed by the Scottish artist William Wilson, its theme is the glorifying of the coming of Christ. In 1968 the same artist, by now blind, was asked to design the window in the gallery of Knox church. His artistic vision was still intact, and he dictated it to a colleague for construction. This window has as its theme the Revelation of St. John. Click here for more pictures and a description of these fine works.
In 1956 the beautiful mural of the church on the island of Iona, Scotland was painted in the downstairs hall by Knox member Molly Grendal (1913-1980). In celebration of the 50th anniversary of its completion, in 2006 the History and Archives Committee began investigating preservation and restoration of the mural. Restoration was completed in 2007 by Legris Conservation Inc. with funding from Isobel Pitkethly and her sister, Ruth Larsen.