Illumination at Sharon Temple an East Gwillimbury tradition

John McIntyre —

The annual Illumination at Sharon Temple is a unique East Gwillimbury tradition that draws visitors from far and wide. On the first Friday night of September each year, the Temple comes to life with candles glowing in every window and a program which combines music and the spoken word, followed by cider and “Illumination Cake” out on the lawn. Illuminations began many centuries ago as a way to celebrate special occasions in the days when candles and lamps were expensive and evening hours were seldom broken by bright light. The Children of Peace, who finished building the Temple in 1832, held their Illumination as part of what we would consider an early Thanksgiving festival. At the beginning of September, the harvest would  be underway, offering an appropriate time to pause, give thanks and celebrate.

The Children of Peace broke away from the Society of Friends (or Quakers) in 1812. They incorporated many innovations such as instrumental music, singing and a love of ritual and symbolism. The second floor of the Temple served as a musicians’ gallery, while the choir of the Children of Peace gathered at the centre of the floor below. The glowing candles of Illumination evening stood for the light of God shining out to all people. Because of the luxury and expense of imported English glass, the tall windows were considered so unusual at the time that the building itself was sometimes referred to as “a temple of glass.”

A newspaper account of 1855 claimed that nearly 500 people crowded into the Temple for the Illumination that year. The next day, a community feast was held. So many people—almost 1,000—showed up, that they ran out of food. The feast was held south of the Temple where a large Meeting House stood. Along with good things to eat, Feast days also featured music by the Sharon Band. According to the diary of Emily McArthur, Sharon’s first historian, one year a tightrope walker also entertained the crowd!

While there won’t be a tightrope walker, this year’s Illumination on Friday evening, September 5th (rain or shine), will feature the choir of Westminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto. Their director, William Maddox, will explain the unusual acoustic properties of the Temple, while Corey Keeble from the Royal Ontario Museum will present a lively talk about the Temple in context with the architecture of the Italian Renaissance. (Italian Renaissance? Yes, right here in East Gwillimbury!) Gates open at 7:30, while the program in the Temple begins at 8:00 pm. Tickets are $25.00, including light refreshments afterwards, and help support the work of The Sharon Temple Museum Society. As this event is usually sold out, it’s best to purchase tickets in advance from the museum’s Gatehouse, at 18974 Leslie Street, or by calling 905-478-2389.

John McIntyre is Director/Curator of Sharon Temple