Huron takes close up look at history

Published March 1, 2007

The diocese of Huron is taking a page from Hollywood as it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year with the production of a film that features several members of the clergy in 19th-century costume playing their forebears.

Titled Huron, Our Story: The Legacy of Bishop Cronyn, the 30-minute production stars Rev. Nick Wells as Bishop Benjamin Cronyn, founder of the diocese and a pivotal figure in the development of the Anglican Church of Canada. The film is part of a yearlong diocesan celebration that culminates with a worship service at the John Labatt Centre arena in London, Ont. on Sunday, October 28, the anniversary of Bishop Cronyn’s consecration.

As the narration notes, 101 churches (out of the current 220) were established in the southwestern Ontario diocese during his time as bishop from 1857 to 1871. Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Canadian primate whose greeting opens the video, also noted that Bishop Cronyn was “the first bishop elected by synodical process; before that, all bishops were appointed by the crown and shipped here.”

The film takes a dramatized documentary approach to the subject, with narration provided by interviews with scholars Bill Acres and Douglas Leighton of Huron University College (also founded by Bishop Cronyn) and reenactments of such scenes as then-Rev. Cronyn’s arrival in Huron in 1832 by ox-cart and his dramatic election over a candidate favoured by the formidable bishop of Toronto, John Strachan.

Mr. Wells, who serves parishes in Sarnia and Corunna, worked with filmmakers Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnyk of Pixel Dust Studios, based in York, Ont. on a budget of $20,000, some of it contributed by Bishop Cronyn’s descendants.

As a member of a historical reenactment group called The King’s Company, Mr. Wells was accustomed to donning period costumes and dramatizing or lecturing about such events as the French and Indian Wars and the War of 1812.

“The (current) bishop (Bruce Howe) asked me would I do Bishop Cronyn, so I grew my hair and sideburns and I had to take horse riding lessons for four months (in order to appear on horseback in the film),” he said.

Mr. Wells also scouted locations for the film, including the historically-preserved Old St. Thomas church, which has been kept the way it was in the 1860s and therefore did not require removal of electric lighting or modern sound speakers.

The film presents an engaging view of the diocese’s founder as a man of great faith and energy and the experts describe the church politics of the time as the dramas they were. Bishop Cronyn arrived in Canada from Ireland, where the prospects for Anglican clergy were not encouraging.

As a Protestant Irishman, he was not “high church,” the branch of Anglicanism more comfortable with Roman Catholic-style worship. Bishop Cronyn was “low church,” which embraced Puritan plainness in vestments and music. But Bishop Strachan’s candidate, Archdeacon Alexander Bethune, was definitely high church.

The film makes these conflicts so interesting that after a while, the viewer longs for some dialogue rather than strictly narration. Producer Drebert said they wanted to make a film based on facts. “Unless we have substantial research, we don’t like to put words in people’s mouths,” she noted.

Historical accuracy also led to the curious (for the viewer) omission of any mention of the native inhabitants of the diocese, which is the location of a large reserve, the Six Nations, and a historic chapel called Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks.

“(Bishop Cronyn) didn’t take part in First Nations’ missions. He was allowed to pick the priest at the Mohawk chapel, but he didn’t spend extensive time at the First Nations,” Ms. Drebert said.

Bishop Cronyn apparently kept no diary and documents relating to him are church records and records of land transactions – another facet of this pioneer. As the film points out, he was an active land speculator and investor whose dealings helped form the current city of London, Ont. “He was accused of using his office for his own benefit, but that gossip subsided,” noted one of the scholars in the film.

The wealth he acquired also benefited the church, for on his death in 1871, he left a $70,000 endowment.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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