Here we were in Ontario in late May and the temperature was over 30 degrees, but inside the church, it was cool. Peter Campbell and I were in Mount Pleasant, Ontario to interview a local historian and get some footage of Peter Bryce’s hometown for the film Finding Peter Bryce, and we were looking for a stained glass window that was tied to the Bryce family.
Peter Bryce grew up in a far different Canada than the one we live in today. In an era without computers, televisions, and radios the church fulfilled not only a spiritual role, but it gave everyone an identity, and in a time when most people lived in small communities the church all but defined who you were.
“The social aspect of the church in those days was enormous,” says local historian Bill Darfleur. “A lot of what we now see as society’s responsibility in social welfare, employment and those sorts of things, those roles were filled by the church. So, your boss would be in the same congregation as you. It was very important.”
“Religion for the average Canadian in the late 19th century is the centerpiece of their life in a way that we don’t understand today,” says historian Adam Green. “People got their identity from their religion, more than their language, more than ethnicity and to some extent more than their national background.”
Peter Bryce’s parents arrived in Mount Pleasant in 1843, and George and Catherine Bryce took a leading role in the Presbyterian congregation. The book, The Heritage of the Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, has a section on the Bryce family.
George Bryce was one of the first and most devoted members of the church. He was the first president of the Board of Managers and was also one of the church trustees who signed the indenture for the purchase of the two lots where the church is located. He was among the faithful who helped build the church.
George Bryce’s commitment rubbed off on his children. His eldest, George Jr., studied theology at Knox College (University of Toronto) and was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church in 1871. He moved to Winnipeg shortly after to establish Knox Presbyterian Church and serve as its minister. He also played a major role in the education system of Manitoba. He founded Manitoba College, and assisted in founding the University of Manitoba. So, while Peter Bryce is known for his work in the mostly secular world of public health, his personal influences included a heavy dose of Protestant religion, along with a classical liberal approach to life.
“The one life lesson that I managed to tease out (from research on Bryce) was this notion that when you encounter somebody that is not like you, you don’t cast them off, you bring them into ‘the circle,’” says Green. “There was this missionary state of mind that your job, being someone who was educated, was to bring that light to the masses. For the time, it is an open-minded way of looking at the world.”
Bryce’s religion led him to the Social Gospel, a group of people who felt the church’s role was to help those who were struggling in the new industrial economy of the late 19th century. From the Social Gospel we get political leaders like J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas, and it was the Social Gospel which made public health not just a career, but a calling for Peter Bryce.
Peter Campbell and I never did find the correct window on that hot spring afternoon. We had snuck in after another event, and the organizers were waiting to lock the doors and go home. The next day, we missed our connection with June Adlam from the church so we never got a shot of the window. But June and I connected through email, and she sent me a CD with photos of the Bryce window. According to the The Heritage of the Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, the window was erected in 1904 to honour Peter Bryce’s parents. The inscription underneath is “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” and the window depicts the story of the Good Samaritan. It seems Peter Bryce’s persistent advocacy for the Indigenous came from a far deeper place than just the science of public health.