The Origins of St. Luke's Parish
In 1859, a year after the famous Caribou Gold Rush began, the Reverend George Hills, formerly Rector of Great Yarmouth in England, was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of British Columbia. He left Southampton for Victoria on November 17th, 1859, with a magnificent endowment of 25,000 pounds sterling, a gift from Baroness Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy Englishwoman who was very generous to church and charities. It was a perilous journey, one that could last for several months if the long route south around the tip of South America was followed. Bishop Hills chose a shorter route, by sea to the isles of the Caribbean, across the Isthmus of Panama by the newly completed railway, and then by steamer north to San Francisco and on to Victoria.
One of its first victims was the ship's surgeon, and so it fell to Bishop Hills, at great personal risk, to use what medical skill he had to minister to the doctor and other sufferers. There were several deaths and sea burials but the Bishop came through unscathed, took the train over the Isthmus and arrived in San Francisco the day after Christmas. He had originally intended to break his journey over the Christmas season and to stay a few days in San Francisco. His friends there urged him to delay his departure to Victoria, which must have been a great temptation, but Bishop Hills pressed on. It was as well for him that he did; the ship he would have taken, the Northerner, was wrecked off the coast of Oregon with the loss of many lives.
He arrived safely in Victoria on January 6th, 1860, and recorded heartfelt thankfulness in his diary. With indefatigable energy, he immediately set to work. The Diocese was huge and sparsely populated with tiny inaccessible settlements hundreds of miles apart.
There was a bewildering mix of languages and cultures, yet the Bishop had been instructed to plant the national church of England, assisting with the support of clergy, catechists and teachers, and the administrative machinery of the various churches, schools and missionary activities amongst the European, Chinese, African and native population. No small task! Implied was the knowledge that there was already competition in the mission field with the Roman Catholics and the Methodists. Nothing was more distressing than the thought of 'other denominations' winning converts with greater zeal and energy.
Bishop Hills seems to have had complete confidence that the work would go forward as planned. His written reports to the Columbia Mission Society make fascinating reading. His plan was both simple and practical: mission stations were to be established in remote areas wherever a few people could be gathered together for worship. Lay readers would read printed sermons and, as often as possible, a clergyman would ride in to administer the sacraments. I could be several months between visits in some areas, but as the population grew, the Bishop intended such mission outposts to evolve into chapels and later into churches that would, God willing, become self-supporting.
St. Luke's was one mission which justified the Bishop's confidence. In 1860 it was one of the first to unite in worship outside the settlement around the walls of Fort Victoria. Services were held within the Fort, while outside the Fort a small congregation worshipped at the wooden church on Church Hill. Another, at Craigflower, later became St. Paul's, Esquimalt. The vast area we now know as British Columbia was wilderness, an empty space on the maps of North America, its rivers and mountain ranges uncharted until men pushed out into the virgin territory looking for gold.
By 1879 the Diocese no longer encompassed the entire province; when it was divided in two, the Diocese of British Columbia then included Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Looking back, we can see that St. Luke's was not only one of the earliest congregations in the Diocese; it was also one of the earliest in the province. The communion set given by Bishop Hills in 1860 is still in use at St. Luke's Church. It is kept in its original leather-covered wooden box.