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Oct. 15, 2021 | Friday
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The oldest books west of Quebec
Donald Combe stands beside a shelf of books. Some of them date back to as early as 1599. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

St. Mark’s Anglican Church has been sitting on a historical goldmine for generations. Housing one of the oldest libraries in Canada, the Addison Library holds books dating back to the 1700s. The oldest is dated 1548.

Donald Combe, one of the library’s caretakers and a member of the archive committee, said it’s the oldest library in Ontario, “Arguably, one of the oldest in the country.”

Robert Addison originally brought his collection of 1500 books overseas to Canada from England in 1791. Now there are about 1350 in the collection.

“When Addison came, he brought with him the library, which is an extraordinary feat to think in 1791. Crossing the ocean was one thing but carting along with him 1500 books as carry-on luggage was another,” Combe said.

Stored in St. Mark’s church, he said they’re the town’s books.

“From the beginning, St. Mark’s was always the centre of the town. The earliest burials are here. The other cemeteries didn’t exist until the mid-1830s,” he said, reinforcing the idea that the books are a hidden gem of NOTL. “This library, I like to feel in a real way, does belong to Niagara-on-the-Lake.”

The books are now housed in the room designed by Canadian artist Campbell Scott and constructed by Bill German, a local craftsman.

Covering a variety of subjects, it was likely that Addison travelled to Canada as a missionary, Combe said, speculating that Addison was hoping to create a school when he arrived.

“In which case he would have needed a good selection of books.”

There are many religious works in the collection, from volumes of scriptures and sermons to an early version of the bible, known as the Britches Bible, published in 1599.

“There are other books by other rectors where there’s no indication of their provenance at all, they very well may have come from Addison’s private collection. But more than likely, it was that other clerics, knowing that Addison was coming here to become a missionary, helped him. They likely said here, these will probably help you in preparation of sermons, etc.,” Combes said.

There are also self-help, philosophy and other books in the collection.

“We have the first English translation of Machiavelli’s works. They’ve never gone out for publication. There are things that are as relevant today as when they were first written. Others are more obscure.”

Addison died in 1829, but his wife, who was much younger, didn’t die until the 1850s. At that point, the Addison’s grandsons passed the collection of books on to the rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church ‘in perpetuity’ – a bond or other security with no fixed maturity date.

The books were kept at the church, not belonging to the church itself and only belonging to the rector as long as he was part of the church.

The collection was eventually donated to McMaster University, with some contention from the parishioners. After several years, the church reclaimed the books and they were stored in the crypt under the church, where they sat until the library was built.

“They were put into the crypt and sealed - because it was such a contentious issue, that the rector at that time didn’t wish to deal with the contentious issue.”

Combes said the books sat in the crypt for at least 10 years before it was re-opened.

“When they were opened, they were in perfect condition because McMaster had begun restoration with them, had put preservatives on the covers. They were all individually bubble-wrapped in the crypt, and they were safe.”

To properly house the books, Combes said it was decided that the hall would be created.

From that point, Combe said Peter Babcock and Murray Wilcox, both members of the archive committee, have “worked tirelessly, endlessly with the books” to gain knowledge of what the books are and, to some extent, how important they are.

The product of two years of work, Babcock and Wilcox published a transcribed version of a book of sermons.

“What is interesting about the book is that after the first few sermons were written the author turned the book around and upside down – so we mirrored that in our published version,” Babcock said, adding, “it looks something awful.”

The pair poured over the original, transcribing the book word for word, calling on Fred Habermehl, another member of the archive committee dedicating his time to working with the books, for help with particularly tough words and phrases.

Wilcox said their aim was to replicate the original volume, adding the markings, strike-out’s and notes in the margins to the published version.

Wilcox said he got involved with the library after using the church’s archive material for some personal research. For three months he returned consistently, pouring over material with assistance from members of the archive committee. After that, he said he saw Babcock transcribing in the library, with a magnifying glass, writing everything out by hand.

“I had previous experience transcribing letters and taking photos, digitizing it and enlarging it on screen. I thought, I can help Peter out.”

He digitized all of the pages in the sermons book.

“I thought, well I’ll help them for a bit. They gave me three months, I’ll give them three. Well it got to be so enjoyable.”

He said he enjoyed it so much he continued working with the books long after he initially planned.

Babcock was pulled in by Combe.

“That’s my fault,” Combe said, adding that he knew Babcock would share his interest in the library’s history.

As for Combe, he started by first transcribing the stones in the town’s three cemeteries. A true story-teller, he said the lives of the people buried in the cemeteries interested him. With the help of Habermehl, a book providing a walking tour of the three cemeteries of St. Mark’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Vincent de Paul’s called Stones, Saints and Sinners was published.

“It’s wonderful to think that there are a lot of stories out there, and there are a lot of stories in here too,” Combe said, referring to the cemetery, viewed out the window of the library, “Not just the contents of the book but who owned the book and why they owned it – it moved to the next person, and who that person was, and why it ended up here, was it really valuable?”

Habermehl and Combe published many books together.

“As far as the books are concerned, Donald and I have been working on books for years. We started out transcribing historic cemeteries. Published that. We had so much material we didn’t know what to do with it, so we decided to put it in print,” Habermehl said, joking that it started them down “this ugly path.”

Combes said the work that can be done with the books is endless, “There’s enough work in this library to keep a bunch of librarians busy for several lifetimes.”