The story of our congregation begins in 1839, when 14 Baptists in St. Thomas who were operating as a branch of the nearby First Baptist Church of Yarmouth convened a council to establish themselves as a new Church. This newly established congregation began meeting in a small building on the Western end of the town, at the foot of Talbot Street hill. In 1845 a new plot of land was purchased at the corner of William Street and Anne St. The congregation operated under the names First Baptist Church, West End Baptist Church, and William Street Baptist Church between 1839 and 1879.
In February of 1875, 31 members of William Street signed a letter requesting that because they lived in the eastern part of town and were unable to fully participate in the life of the William Street Church, they would have the blessing of the William Street Church to begin a second church in St Thomas. On March 3rd this new congregation, meeting in a mechanics hall was organized under the name Zion Baptist Church, and they called Rev. Thomas Baldwin (who had previously been pastor at William Street) as their first pastor. Later that year a lot on Flora Street was purchased and a 50′ x 32′ frame church was built. The lot where this church stood became part of the property where Arthur Voaden Secondary School now stands.
On September 4th, 1878 a group from First Baptist (William Street) was appointed to meet with Zion Baptist with the proposal of bringing the two churches together as one church in a central location. Plans for the new location (our current location) began in December 1878 (the property was purchased April of the following year, with construction beginning April 15th, 1879), with the building design being based on First Baptist Church, Brantford (the steeple was placed to the side, whereas Brantford features a central steeple). On January 22, 1879 a motion was made at Zion Baptist to join First Baptist, and the terms of union were made by a joint committee which began meeting February 2, 1879. The final service at Zion Baptist Church was held August 31, 1879, with the message based on Psalm 126:23, “The Lord hath done great things for us”.
The first service of the new united congregation, consisting of 225 members (Rev. Elmore Harris of First Baptist became pastor of the new church) was held on September 7th, 1879, and 2 special “Opening Services” were held on October 19th. A mission circle was formed not long after, in 1881.
With numbers at Centre Street Baptist soaring (at its highest point, 1910-1917, there was a membership of 687) a group from Centre Street Baptist formed a second church- Imannuel Baptist Church in 1891, which lasted only until 1903.
In 1925, with the city expanding, a property in the north end, on Edward Street was purchased (for $450) to begin the Edward Street Mission, and in 1936, Edward Street Baptist Church was recognized as a new member of the Elgin Association.
In July of 1927, Centre Street Baptist and Knox Presbyterian held our first joint summer services, a tradition which continues today.
The Jessie Rosser Mission Circle was launched in 1948 to honour Ms. Rosser who left as a missionary to India later that year, and served until 1987.
Centre Street saw two members, Vernon Ross and Clarence Roberts, ordained in 1954 in their respective churches. And yes, Clarence came home to Centre Street following his retirement from the ministry, until his passing in 2017.
In 1957, 5 members of the Centre Street Sunday School were honoured for a remarkable 30 years of perfect attendence. This was fitting as that same year the new Christian Education wing was completed and dedicated (the mortgage used for the construction was burned in December 1966).
1962 saw the destruction of the steeple by fire, after it was struck by lightening on Easter Sunday, April 22.
1973-1974 saw remodeling of the sanctuary, with new pews, pulpit, choir loft and carpet.
1979- Centennial Year. Theme: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
In 1981, the church hired a young (17 years old) man to become the organist and director of the choir. Gerald Vreman has continued with Centre Street since then, completing a undergrad and Master’s degree in music at Western.
Although a lot has changed and developed, many things remain. Throughout it’s history Centre Street has always valued the education of young people and we have maintained a strong commitment to serving and reaching out to all of the city of St. Thomas. We feel that there is a bright future for Centre Street- steeped in a rich history, which we honour and celebrate and retain the benefits of, but we are not afraid of creativity. We consider our history to be a blessing, and a testimony of God’s goodness, and a mandate to continue on to reach new generations with God’s love.
*Most of this material is taken from a work entitled Early History of Baptist Work in St. Thomas, Ontario 1837-1879. Centre Street Baptist Church 1879-1979, which is a brief sketch of our history compiled by Winifred Reed for the centennial celebrations of 1979. This work is available through the St. Thomas Public Library.
Another helpful resource is Christopher Crocker’s Rediscovering Our Roots: A History of Pioneer Baptists in Elgin County, 1816-1856 (Available here) Straffordville, 2011.