Sharon Temple's Illumination: A Magical Candle-lit Evening of Music and Memories

Posted : September 5, 2014

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Compared with some countries, Canada’s collection of historical religious landmarks is small. While we may not have the Angkor Wat Temple, Al-Azhar Mosque, or St. Peter’s Basilica, we do have the only place for worship for the Children of Peace. This small religious sect built the stunning Sharon Temple found 45 minutes north of Toronto. Now a National Historic Site and a National Peace Site, the Temple (which is now a museum rather than a religious organization) hosts events throughout the year, including their much-anticipated Illumination night on the first Friday in September.

Last year I attended Illumination and enjoyed a quietly magical evening of reflection, song, community, and connections to the past. This year’s event, with its own cast of special guest speakers and music ensembles, promises to be just as memorable.
For any appreciator of inspiring architecture and religious history, the best part of any visit to Sharon Temple is the building itself, which was modelled after Solomon’s Temple. In contrast to the many utilitarian buildings of 1830s Ontario (and even the Children of Peace’s Quaker roots), the three-tiered, pristine white structure rises impressively from the perfectly manicured lawn of the park-like site. Pinnacles and lanterns perch on each of the four corners of each wedding-cake-like layer.

John McIntyre, Director of the Sharon Temple Museum Society, explains, “Unlike many other National Historic Sites, this building has not been modernized in any way, not even to add heating, so the temple is much as it was in 1832. We don’t tend to think of grand buildings like this during that period, but this site demonstrates that there were people in Upper Canada who were highly skilled as artists, musicians, religious thinkers, and craftsmen.”
Inside, rows of pews line each side of the square room, facing in towards the central “ark.” Wooden pillars (bearing the names Faith, Hope, Love, and Charity) are topped with green-edged arches, contrasting with the creamy tones of the soaring ceiling. A daunting staircase – Jacob’s Ladder – leads to the musicians gallery above.
The pomp of their worship space was only one aspect that distinguished the Children of Peace. Music was also a vital part of their worship, with the congregation forming the first civilian band in Canada and commissioning the first organ built in Ontario.
Illumination combines the sect’s pageantry and music, with beautiful hymns and classical music performed in the romance of candlelight. The Children of Peace themselves took part in a similar event on the first weekend in September as a form of thanksgiving during the beginning of the harvest season. Presented since the 1980s by the museum, today’s Illumination event includes performances on the organ, a quintet of singers, and hymns sung by the “congregation” guests. Although the exact order of the “service” and the particular songs chosen vary each year, the selection always includes hymns written by the Children of Peace’s leader, David Wilson, an accomplished and prolific composer, as well as songs popular in the early nineteenth century (such as Yankee Doodle).This year’s event will feature performances by Yorkminster Park Baptist Church choir from Toronto. Their director and organist William Maddox will also speak on the acoustics of the temple and why the interior was specially designed for excellent musical quality, a topic he has lectured on previously. Another speaker, Corey Keeble, a past curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, will discuss the temple’s architecture and how it relates to the architecture of the Italian Renaissance.
With today’s fast pace, constantly buzzing phones, and attractions chalk full of sensory overload, it is rejuvenating to just sit quietly for an hour. The candlelight lends a softness to the surroundings and lets you concentrate on the simple sounds of voices rising to the rafters. It is easy to place yourself back 200 years when the Children of Peace would gather here.
“We live in an era of bright lights and seldom , it’s so unusual to see a building lit by candles today,” Mr. McIntyre says. “The event is very simple, yet very moving.”
There are a variety of other events held at the Temple each year, in addition to regular museum and site tours. These include the Weaving Words Storytelling Festival in late September and Fall Lantern Tours in mid-October. Tickets to these events are purchased in advance by leaving a phone message.

The Children of Peace
The founder of the Children of Peace was David Willson, born in New York State in 1778 and migrated to Canada in 1801. He joined the Quakers, of which his wife was a member, but his ministry was rejected when he began to preach at the beginning of the War of 1812. He was joined by a majority of the Quakers living on Yonge Street, including the Master Builder of the Temple and Meeting Houses, Ebenezer Doan; Doan’s farmhouse and out buildings now stand on the museum grounds.
The consolidation of the Children of Peace in a single village, Hope, was accompanied by their adoption of a cooperative economy. Through cooperative marketing, the establishment of a credit union, and a land-sharing system, the Children of Peace all became prosperous farmers in an era when new farmers frequently failed. The Children of Peace saw themselves as the new Israelites lost in the wilderness of Upper Canada.
They built their ornate temple to raise money for the poor (they had village meetinghouses for their worship services), and constructed the province’s first shelter for the homeless and by 1851, Sharon was the most prosperous village in the province. They took a lead role in the organization of the province’s first co-operative, the Farmers’ Storehouse, and opened the province’s first credit union. They played a critical role in the development of democracy in Canada through their support of William Lyon Mackenzie and by ensuring the elections of both “fathers of responsible government,” Robert Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine, in their riding in 1841, despite threats of political violence. But today, they are primarily remembered for the Temple, an architectural symbol of their vision of a society based on the values of peace, equality and social justice.
Caitlin Carpenter is founder of Days Out Ontario, a trip planning website and travel blog. 

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