In the early 1860’s there were two Presbyterian missions in Victoria. First Presbyterian Church was established in 1861 by the Reverend John Hall, a missionary from the church in Ireland. By November 1863 a new church had been constructed. A second congregation was established that same year by the Reverand James Nimmo of Church of Scotland. With the departure of Hall for New Zealand and Nimmo for Canada in 1865, it became obvious that the two congregations would be more effective if amalgamated. The Irish and Scottish Churches agreed that since the largest number of colonists were of Scottish descent, the Church of Scotland should take the lead. In May 1865 the Reverend Thomas Somerville, the Assistant Minister of St James Church Glasgow accepted the call by First Presbyterian Church, Victoria. (1)
In the early months, the joint congregation prospered under Mr Somerville’s services. Unfortunately the agreement to amalgamate soon began to unravel. At a meeting of the congregation in February 1866 it was revealed that three members of the congregation who had held the title to the church building in fee simple had established a trust giving themselves extensive powers over doctrine, discipline and the minister. This action was taken without consulting the congregation. Mr. Somerville was alarmed by this action and saw it as at odds with his understanding of the Presbyterian form of church government. After some months of discussion and consultation with the Colonial Committee of the Church, Mr. Somerville resigned from First Presbyterian Church to establish a new congregation to be named St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
Somerville took a broadly missionary view of his role in the colony and constantly sought to expand the reach of the Presbyterian Church. On the island, he preached at Cowichan, Nanaimo, Comox and Alberni (2). In 1868 he spent much of the summer on a mission trip to the Cariboo region (2). He regularly conducted services at Friday Harbour on the San Juan Islands during the period of the boundary dispute with the United States often referred to as “the Pig War”. When a new licentiate, Thomas J Weekes arrived in Victoria from San Francisco, Somerville encouraged him to take up work in the San Juan Islands. In 1872 Weekes was ordained and became the first full time minister at Friday Harbour.
At the time of the laying of the cornerstone for the new St Andrew’s Church in August 1868, Mr Somerville was also the Grand Chaplain of the Masonic Lodge and the ceremony followed the traditions of the Masonic Order. In 1870, Mr. Somerville obtained permission for a trip to Scotland for the purpose of soliciting additional funds to eliminate the outstanding debt on the new church. After arriving in Scotland, he accepted a call from St David’s Kirkintilloch and chose to remain in Scotland for the remainder of his life.
He later served as Minister at the historic Blackfriars Church in Glasgow and as head of the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland. He played a leading role in responding to the request of St Andrew’s for more missionaries to expand the Presbyterian church in British Columbia. He died in 1915
1. Board of Managers Report 1868, St Andrew’s Archives 2. Somerville letter to the Synod of Canada 28 April 1867, St Andrew’s Archives
2. View Online: The Daily Colonist Aug 6, 1868