Trinity Church, Port Burwell is the third, chronologically, of the ‘four sisters’ – the pioneer Anglican churches of the Talbot District. The others are Old St. Thomas (1824); St. Peter’s, Tyrconnell (1827); and Christ Church, Port Stanley (1845). Of them, Trinity is the one most clearly associated with a single person, a giant in the early settlement history of this part of Ontario. The village of Port Burwell was the creation of Colonel Mahlon Burwell; and so was Trinity Church.
In 1836, when Trinity was officially opened for worship, Mahlon Burwell was a retired land surveyor living in Port Talbot, the owner of large tracts of land in the London District, its land registrar, and its Member of Parliament. Colonel Burwell’s gift of a church to the village was a remarkable one, perhaps unique in Ontario’s history. In 1833, just three years after he had surveyed village lots on his land at the mouth of the Otter and a year after his brother founded its harbour company, he laid the cornerstone of a church which he endowed with lands and a rectory. He did attach one important string to his gift: that the front box-pew would be retained for his family, and that his descendants would inherit the right to nominate the rector in perpetuity. It would not be until 1908 that his grandson and namesake, Mahlon G. Burwell, would relinquish that right to the Bishop of Huron. That timing coincided with the ascension of a Burwell cousin’s husband to the Bishopric.
The 1830s had been a decade of discord and rebellion in Upper Canada. In a colony rife with political unrest and in a pioneer settlement only beginning to attract the tradesmen needed to complete a structure like Trinity, it would be three years before the church was, as the Colonel wrote to his friend Archdeacon John Strachan in Toronto, “ready to be preached in.” In the meantime, the Anglicans of the lakeshore settlement were served principally by three priests: Reverend Evans of Woodhouse, Reverend Burnham of St. Thomas, and the itinerant young deacon, Thomas Green, who preached the first official service in Port Burwell, in John Burwell’s tavern, in February 1836. After John Strachan’s inaugural service at Trinity on May 22nd of that year, these men continued to visit the village every few weeks until a permanent rector was finally appointed in 1843, after considerable lobbying by Colonel Burwell.
The Colonel’s son, Leonidas, took over the management of his Port Burwell affairs in 1842, married a local girl, and built a gracious home on the west bank of the Otter which still stands today. Reverend Thomas Boulton Read appointed him Trinity’s first rector’s warden at the inaugural vestry meeting in 1843, a post he held almost continuously until his death in 1879. Leonidas’ son, Mahlon G., then held the position until 1908. Both men were interred in the historic burial ground which surrounds the church, along with scores of their pioneer neighbours. Alton, Backhouse, Blackburn, Draper, Emery, McDiarmid, Pressey, Prong, Poustie, Saxton, Sutherland and Youell are just some of the early lakeshore families and Trinity parishioners commemorated there.
In his last years as warden, Mahlon G. acquiesced to the congregation’s decision to renovate the sanctuary in the Edwardian style. Its box-pews were replaced by straight pews along a centre aisle; the stoves and gallery were removed; a chancel was added to accommodate the memorial window donated by the family of Rector Clarence Widmer Ball; vertical wainscoting was installed; and the Georgian glazed windows were replaced with stained glass. Mahlon G. also lived to see the purchase of the former continuation school in 1925 and its move across Wellington Street onto the northwest corner of the churchyard to serve as a parish hall.
Trinity is representative of a form of church architecture unique in Ontario to the first half of the nineteenth century, known as ‘builder’s picturesque’. With its Gothic hall-and-tower plan, it reflects the English heritage of its founders. In its construction and decoration, though, it harkens more to their Loyalist roots in colonial America. It exudes a pioneer simplicity complemented by sophisticated classical detail and just a hint of the American democratic spirit. It was built entirely of the material closest at hand; the splendid old-growth pine of the Carolinian forest in which it sat. The Regency tracery of its windows was repeated in the Moorish arch, symbolizing the Trinity, over the entrance, a feature unique to Trinity among the churches of Upper Canada. Also unique was its light-handed nod to the Greek Revival in the continuation of the eave returns on its south facade into a complete pediment. A quatrefoil window on the tower drew the eye upward to its octagonal steeple. In 1853, a bell weighing 525 pounds was purchased from the Meneely Company of Troy, New York and shipped to Port Burwell via the Erie Canal. For many years it tolled the hours of 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. daily for the benefit of the many villagers who did not own pocket watches.