In the summer of 1955, Sherman Niles had recently finished high school and was working on his parents’ dairy farm on Wolfe Island, the first and largest of the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Offshore from the historic Kingston, the pastoral community of farmers and retirees has a year-round population of just 1,400.
Before he knew it, the teenager found himself holding the position of warden at the tiny Anglican parish of Christ Church in the diocese of Ontario.
What led an 18-year-old at the dawn of the Elvis era to assume such a weighty role as secular manager of an entire parish? “I took it on to help out my uncle. He was the warden back then, but he had to ease up on his workload,” Niles recalls. “It was quite a bit of work just to keep the churches physically open in those days.”
But for the Rev. Gerry Moore, now priest-in-charge of Wolfe Island’s Anglican parish, the young Niles was being more than a dutiful nephew. “Sherman is a very genuine Christian, who has served the Lord for more than six decades,” he says. “He’s still very committed to his church, and he and his wife, Pearl, have taken on the entire care of Christ Church.”
Just this past June, Niles, now 81, retired from his post after 62 years as warden at Christ Church and later on at the island’s Church of the Holy Trinity as well, following the amalgamation of the two sites into the island’s current two-point Anglican parish.
“I was starting to find all the meetings I had to attend just a little too much,” says Niles somewhat apologetically. “When you’re the warden, if it’s anything to do with the church, you have to be there, and then you have to deal with the diocese as well.” A father of four, during his wardenship Niles also worked the family dairy farm until its sale in 1997.
The practical and organizational skills acquired as a farmer stood him in good stead as warden of the rural churches, where he handled everything from supervising repairs and cleaning to administration and getting the fires started on Sunday mornings so the buildings—both sturdily constructed from the region’s famous Ordovician limestone —would be warm enough to accommodate the congregation.
“We had to close Christ Church in the winter because when the frost came, heating the church and thawing the frost, then letting it get cold and freeze again was very hard on the stone,” Niles recalls.
Over his more than six decades of service, Niles worked with 16 different priests under seven bishops. He and his wife now live in a new home on a parcel of waterfront land they kept from the sale of the farm. “An off-islander bought the farm, but it’s still being worked and it’s islanders that are working it,” Niles says with some satisfaction.
Recalling his years of working with Niles, Canon Chris Carr, priest-in-charge on Wolfe Island until 2015, says, “Everyone deferred to him, even the warden at the other church. He was such a hard worker, overseeing all the rebuilding and refurbishing.” And Niles, he notes, was very gracious when for the first time the parish got a full-time incumbent. “The parish had been run by the warden for so long it was a new experience to have a full-time priest involved, but Sherman handled it very well.”
“I always enjoyed looking after the priests,” says Niles, whose long career was celebrated June 11 at a service presided over by Michael Oulton, bishop of Ontario. Niles is also the recipient of the diocese’s Medal of Long Service and is only the second person to receive this honour.
Speaking with Niles, one is reminded of the tale of Albert Foreman, the protagonist in Somerset Maugham’s famous short story “The Verger”—but without the unwanted career twist that drives the long-serving churchman from his beloved parish into a business that ultimately makes him, against all inclination, a wealthy man. Unlike Foreman, Niles kept his parish post for 62 years and has a wealth of honoured service to show for it.