St Luke's: the church on the hill

By Danda Humphreys, December 2010

The final resting place of Cedar Hill pioneers celebrates 150 years of history.

Reverend Canon Peter Parker calls it “the drive-by church,” because that’s what most people do—drive by it on their way to somewhere else. Yet at St Luke’s Church, there is history to spare. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, St Luke’s—and its equally historic churchyard—offer a rare glimpse into the lives of the first Europeans who settled the area called Cedar Hill.

Over a century and a half ago, Cedar Hill Road was a native trail, the route followed by up-Island First Nations people who traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Victoria. Beaching their canoes at the eastern end of Cordova Bay to avoid the dangerous riptides around Ten Mile Point, they travelled along the east side of Cedar Hill (now Mount Douglas), then followed the hills and valleys south to the HBC settlement on the Inner Harbour.

The first colonist to make a home for himself at the north end of the trail was James, son of John Tod, a former HBC chief factor who had retired to Victoria and purchased a large part of what is now Oak Bay. James joined his father here in 1850, married Flora, daughter of Donald Macaulay (Macaulay Point), and established the beginnings of Spring Hill Farm. 

By the time the seventh of their 17 children was born, the Tods were no longer so isolated. Cedar Plains, nestled between Mount Douglas and Mount Tolmie, had attracted other pioneer farmers, including Robert Scott, a carpenter hired by the HBC, who helped build Victoria’s first Anglican church on Church Hill (where the Law Courts stand on today’s Burdett Avenue).

South of the Scott property, Peter Merriman built a home. Merriman had been manager of James Douglas’ Fairfield Farm, located east of the fort. By the time Scott moved his family to Cedar Hill, the original north-south trail had been widened to form Cedar Hill Road. 

Scott’s neighbour to the south was John Irvine, who had originally been hired by the HBC to work at Craigflower Farm. The Irvines arrived at Victoria in 1851. Every penny earned was saved, and when Irvine completed his HBC contract, he moved his wife Jessie and their growing family to the area known as Cedar Plains. Enchanted by the profusion of wild roses on the property, the Irvines called their farmhouse “Rose Bank.” It was large, welcoming, ideal for a growing family—and of great interest to a man called Alexander Garrett. 

Reverend Garrett had been charged by Bishop George Hills with ministering to the growing number of settlers in the area, and he needed a gathering place for his flock. Rose Bank, close to the intersection of Cedar Hill Road and its cross road, seemed heaven-sent. Without hesitation, the Irvines, who were actually Presbyterians, generously agreed to support the Anglican Church’s efforts to provide Christian services to their fellow pioneers. 

The first Sunday service at Rose Bank in 1860 attracted 23 worshippers, but before long the congregation had overflowed into the Irvines’ barn. Clearly, a separate building was needed, and in 1862 St Luke’s Chapel was built, along with Chapel Farm, which was managed by Henry and Elizabeth King. Mrs King was the first educator in the area, seating the settlers’ children around her own kitchen table and teaching them the alphabet with the aid of her King James Bible. 

It was Henry King who rang the Cedar Plains Chapel bell when Bishop Hills conducted the first service there, in November 1862, and again on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the parish. King died 12 years later, in 1922. By that time, St Luke’s boasted a pipe organ, a new church building (1888) to replace the original chapel, a thriving population of churchgoers, and a cemetery.

Almost 80 years later, St Luke’s continues to hold its own. The church, where the communion set given by Bishop Hills in 1860 is still in use, is well worth a visit. The churchyard, designated as a heritage site by the Municipality of Saanich in 1980, is a place of well-preserved remembering, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the area in days gone by. Well over 1000 pioneers lie buried there. Short biographies of upwards of 200 of them are included in the book Gone But Not Forgotten: A History of St Luke’s Churchyard by Pam Gaudio and Bev Ellison.

Next time you drive through the Shelbourne Valley, consider an alternative to busy, man-made Shelbourne Street. Instead, take Cedar Hill Road, past the pioneer church and back into history. Today, while some Anglican churches struggle to stay afloat, St Luke’s has a solid following, and is a picturesque reminder of yesterday’s Cedar Hill.


Danda Humphreys recently performed in the St Luke’s Players’ production of Arsenic and Old Lace. See for information about their upcoming panto, Robinson Crusoe.