Among the early settlers of Howard Township a considerable number were in religious belief adherents of the Presbyterian form of church government and in 1850 when this portion of the Province was known as Upper Canada. Duncan McLinlay, John McKenzie, John McKerracher, Robert McKinlay, John Patterson, William McLure, Charles Cruickshank and a number of others united for the purpose of forming themselves into a Congregation and obtaining Sunday services. An application to the London Presbytery was responded to by a deputation being sent to Ridgetown, and after investigation the people were organized into a congregation. Duncan McKinlay, and John McKenzie were ordained as ruling Elders. The congregation was then placed under the supervision of the London Presbytery and ministers were sent in from time to time to give services whish were held in the schoolhouse.
Ninety-three years ago Ridgetown was little more than a cluster of houses, a little cross-road village. But these sturdy, virile followers of John Calvin and John Knox desired a place of worship, and with true pioneer faith, energy and perseverance they went to work and in 1854 they erected their first church building. The land was a gift from Ebenezer Colby and was part of his farm which is now known as Ward three Ridgetown.
The church was a small white wooden edifice and stood on the back end of the grounds occupied by the present church, the entrance being from Ebenezer and Church Streets. When completed with its little spire, and its plain drab colored seats, pulpit and wainscotting, the little company felt proud of their Kirk.
In the fall of 1854 the Rev. William King of Buxton was appointed by the London Presbytery to dedicate the church and organize the congregation as a charge when Duncan McKinlay, John McKenzie, and Jonathan Bell were inducted as the first Elders.
By 1856 the congregation had increased in numbers and financial strength and felt warranted in calling a minister. The petition was acted upon by the Presbytery. A 'call' was extended to Mr Wm. Forest. The ministers salary of $400 per year was collected and paid every six months.
The Presbyterians of Guilds, Morpeth, Duart, Indian Lands, Botony, Thamesville and Mull all came to Ridgetown church and occasionally the minister gave them night services. (week-night) He also gave Sunday services at Botony and there about 1860 they built a church.
In 1860 the Ridgetown congregation substituted lamps for candles in the church. Robert Grant was the first caretaker of the church at a salary of $10 per year. Rev. Wm. Forest resigned on account of ill health in 1864.
Rev. Wm. Coven was ordained and inducted October 25,1865, remaining until 1872. During his ministry the house next to the present Manse was prepared and fitted up for the minister.
Rev. A. Currie was in Ridgetown 1873-1800.The congregation through the Session, requested permission from the Presbytery of Chatham to make a beginning in the building of a larger church. The next step was to secure a building site and so we read in the church records of March 30, 1875 that Hugh McDonald, John Moody and Daniel Willson were appointed to purchase lot 8, corner of Main and Church Streets from L. Gosnell. This was done April 27,1875.The price paid for the house and lot was $400. Then at a congregational meeting on October 23,1878, Hugh McDonald and John White made a motion that a new church be built providing a subscription list of $10,000 be secured, otherwise the building shall not be proceeded with at present (Carried.) The following was the subscription committee, Donald McLaren, John Moody, Hugh MeDonald, John Crawford, D.G.Wilson, John Patterson and John White. The subscriptions were to be payable in four annual instalments beginning May 1, 1878.
The money must have been secured for we read in the record of November 19, 1878, that Mr Moody and Mr. Archie McLaren moved that the following be the building committee, John Moody, Donald McLaren, John G. McGregor, Robert McGregor, Duncan Smith, Jacob Smith, M.D., Archibald McLinlay, James McKinlay, John Patterson, John Crawford, Robert Constable, Hugh McDonald, John Wilson, Sr., D.G. Wilson, Robert Wilson, Rev. A. Currie-Chairman, John White-Secretary, and Charles Grant-Treasurer.
Space forbids us to give all the details of the undertaking, other than to say that the architect was W.G. Malcomson, Detroit Mich., Messrs Tolmie and Wilson were the contractors. On May 20,1879,the corner stone of Mount Zion Presbyterian Church, Ridgetown was laid by Rev. Wm. Coven, D.D. Principal of Knox College Toronto, assisted by Rev. J.R. Battisby, Moderator of Presbytery of Chatham, and by members of the Presbytery. The service of dedication was held on Sunday, January 11,1880 with Rev. Dr .McLaren, M.A. Professor in Knox College, Toronto and Rev. Wm. Gray of Windsor present.
For twenty years Mount Zion served its purpose well, but in two decades many changes had taken place. The church had become dingy, the seats out of date. It was decided to remodel the exterior and the interior of the whole building. When built in 1879 the church was 100 feet long, and 60 feet wide. The Tower was 212 feet high and the entrance to the building was by two sets of high outside stairs in front of the church (copied from the Plaindealer, January 18, 1900)
The appearance of the exterior has been changed and improved by the erection of a lobby in front and a wing on either side of the building behind. Passing through the front lobby in its English Gothic style with cut-stone ornaments you pass directly into the church from the ground. Wide handsomely finished stairs lead up to the main auditorium, and another flight goes down to the basement. Ascending to the main auditorium one is struck by the many improvements the propertion has been greatly bettered and the acoustic properties also by lowering the ceiling several feet and substituting a deep panelled timbered ceiling for a plastered arch. There are many improvement in the main auditorium such as the sloping opera house floor, aisles leading directly from pulpit platform to exits, the lowering of the choir loft and the pulpit platform, the abolition of the gallery and the introduction of beautiful comfortable, cushioned seats. In the day-time the light is softened by fine ornamental leaded glass windows and at night four brass chandeliers, each containing eight electric lamps furnish the illumination. The back of the choir loft is filled by the magnificent pipe organ. Of the two wings at the rear one is to furnish an entrance to the basement and the main auditorium of the church and the other on the ground floor a beautiful vestry, and in the basement a kitchen and pantry. The organ needed the services of a pumper until April 10,1924,when an electric blower was purchased.
On June 18, 1906, owing to damage done to the church spire by a severe wind storm two years previous, it was decided by the board that expert advice be sought regarding the condition of the tower and the possibility of its falling. The result being that a Committee composed of W.R. McDonald, J.R.Wilson and John Niddledith was appointed to take it down and put in a false front or cover it over for the present. In 1916 the Board authorized that the tower be rebuilt. This leaves the exterior of the church as it now stands.
The ministers of the church: Rev. Wm. Forest (1857-64), Rev. Wm. Coven (1865-72), Rev. A. Currie (1873-80), Rev. G.G. McRobbie (1881-91), Rev. R.J. Hunter (1891-98), Rev. G. Munroe (1896-1906), Rev. G.M. Dunn (1906-13), Rev. M.J. McPherson (1914-16), Rev. George Weir (1917-25), Rev. J.H. Barnett (1925-32), Rev. J.M. McCurlie (1932-36), Rev Norman McKay ( 1936-39), Rev. F. MacAvoy (1940-45), and Rev . T Owen Hughes (1945-1950), Rev. Donald MacInnes, 1950-
In 1854 the little church with the spire had no pipe organ or for that matter, any kind of organ. They had no choir but they did have the man with the tuning fork, who raised the tune and all united in singing the Psalms and Paraphrases. William McLure was the first precentor 1854-58. He was a shoemaker at Morpeth. John Davidson came next. He also was a shoemaker and walked from Morpeth every Sunday through the bush. After him came Robert Wilson about 1875. He organized the first choir. It was sometime in the year 1881, the first organ was used in the church service, Lena Constable was the first Organist.
The brick sheds, which were sold and torn down the fall of 1945,were built during Mr Dunn's ministry in 1906,and the Manse building fund started. In 1914 during the ministry of Rev. M.J. McPherson the present Manse was built with J.D. McLean, Thomas Craig, and D. Cochrane as the building committee. The Choir gowns were purchased by the choir in 1914.
The church was redecorated in 1947,and in 194& the organ was rebuilt.
In May 1950 the one-hundredth anniversary was celebrated and a Historical Sketch edited by Mrs John Dell.
At the present time (1951) the tower is being repaired.
Transcribed from the records of Mrs. Geo. S. Brien, Rural Ridgetown Women's Institute.