It is generally conceded that the man who has been called the Apostle of Presbyterianism in the Maritime Provinces, the Rev. James MacGregor, introduced Presbyterianism to Sydney. Dr. MacGregor arrived in Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1786 and in 1789 made a hazardous trip from New Glasgow to Sydney, a distance of 150 miles. He hired a boat and took three men with him. It took them a few days to reach Sydney and they remained for another few days before returning to New Glasgow. In 1827, two Presbyterian Ministers, who were traveling together, visited Sydney. They were the Rev. Donald Allan Fraser and the Rev. John MacLennan. Mr. MacLennan made four visits between 1824 and 1831, performing 425 baptisms during that period. The Presbyterians of Sydney signed a call that went forward to Dr. Hugh MacLeod in 1849.
Although few in number, they took steps about that time to organize St.Andrew’s Congregation and to build a church. St.Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, was incorporated by an Act of the Provincial Legislature of Nova Scotia in 1849. Messrs. Hugh Munroe, M.P.P.; Donald MacQueen, Barrister; John Ferguson, Merchant; William Turnbull, Merchant; and William Kynoch, were named Trustees. Arrangements were made for the erection of the first church of that denomination on Charlotte St, just north of what was then the Royal Bank of Canada on a lot of land donated by Mr. Murray Dodd. In due course the church was built on a lot of land 40 x 60 feet in 1855 and for 33 years. Thirty-three years later this property was sold to Mr. Angus J. MacDonald. The Rev. Alexander Fraquahrson, Jr. was the first Minister of St. Andrew’s Church after it became an independent congregation from Mira. He was inducted on August 25, 1875. Mr. Fraquahrson was a native of Cape Breton, born at Middle River, where is father the Rev. Alexander Fraquahrson, Sr. was minister. His ministry in St. Andrew’s Church lasted over 17 years. He died in 1892. His father, the Rev. Alexander Fraquahrson arrived in Cape Breton in 1832, the first missionary sent out by the Glasgow Colonial Society of Scotland. Through the kindness of a noble Scottish lady, Mrs. Isabelle MacKay, whose heart was touched by the spiritual destitution of the Cape Breton Island settlers, the Edinburgh Ladies’ Association was formed to collect money in order to send out ministers across the Island. Mr. Fraquahrson was Gaelic-speaking and he traveled the entire Island on foot and on horseback until his death in 1858. Following Mr. Fraquahrson, the congregation was served by the Rev. John Franklin Forbes, the Rev. Clarence MacKinnon, the Rev. F.W. Anderson, and Dr. John Pringle until Church Union in 1925.
In 1875 there was a division in the congregation. The result was the establishment of the Falmouth Street Church, which stood where the present James MacConnell Memorial Library now stands. The first minister was the Rev. John Murray. The second was erected on Pitt St., across from the Telephone building, on land purchased from a Dr. Michael MacDonald. The contract for the original building built on Pitt St. was $6200. The congregation was transferred to this building in 1888. This Church property was destroyed by fire in 1946. The third St.Andrew’s Church was built on Bentinck St. in 1910. Mr. Alexander Matheson donated two lots of land, opposite what was then City Hall on Bentinck St., and purchase of a lot owned by a Mrs. Mary MacVicar was decided on as the location for the new church building. The contract for construction of the building on Bentinck St. was awarded at a cost of $41,635 and when fully completed was $62,950.
St. James Church in Whitney Pier was built in 1901 and the first Minister was Rev. A.J. MacDonald from 1901 to 1909, then the Rev. John MacIntosh from 1909 to 1925.
Following church union in 1925 the present Presbyterian Church building on George and Brookland Streets was built in 1926 by the continuing Presbyterians from St.Andrew’s, St. James and Falmouth Street Churches. In 1925 the congregation paid the City of Sydney $4000 for this lot. The lot had previously been used as a city warehouse. The day of Dedication of the Church was held on November 21st, 1926 and will long be remembered. The building was filled beyond capacity for all three services at 11 AM, 3 PM (Gaelic), and 7 PM. In 1944 on authority of the congregation, a manse was purchased on Lorway Ave. at a price of $7,750 and an additional $250 spent on repairs. The Rev. Wm. McCulloch Thomson was the first Minister of Bethel Church and served eight years. He was a native of Pictou County. Dr. Thomson was the Clerk of the Presbytery of Cape Breton. He resigned from Bethel on May 30th, 1933. The second Minister was the Rev. Dr. Alexander A. Murray who was inducted into the charge on November 19, 1933. However, things did not work out as planned and Dr. Murray resigned two months later. Two years later, Bethel had its third Minister in the person of Rev. M. Maxwell MacOdrum, Ph.D. who was ordained and inducted on December 27th, 1935. Dr. MacOdrum ministered for four years and resigned December 27th, 1939, exactly four years from the date of his induction. The next Minister was the Rev. Howard Doig, inducted on March 5th, 1940 and on July 12th, 1943 his resignation took effect. On June 16th, 1944, the Rev. Hugh Jack was inducted into Bethel beginning a ministry that was to extend over a period of 15 years. The pastoral tie was dissolved on November 8th, 1959. Following the departure of Dr. Jack from Sydney, the congregation was supplied by the Rev. Dr. A. Gordon MacLennan, a minister of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. who had returned to Cape Breton upon his retirement from his ministry in the United States. Dr. MacLennan died in 1967. Dr. Jack’s successor in Sydney was the Rev. Frank Conkey who was inducted on September 13, 1960, and less than two years after, due to ill health, his resignation was accepted and became effective May 24th, 1962. Less than three months following the resignation of Mr. Conkey, Bethel Congregation extended a Call to the Rev. Everett H. Bean, who at the time was Minister of the Kensington Charge in P.E.I. The Call was accepted and on November 20,1962 Dr. Bean’s induction took place. In 1963 the Congregation adopted the name Bethel Presbyterian Church. Dr. Bean retired on August 31st, 1984 and was made Minister Emeritus of Bethel on May 7th, 1989. Dr. Bean died as the result of a heart attack on January 7th, 1991 after having served faithfully at Bethel for 22 years as Minister and two years as Minister Emeritus. The next Minister of Bethel was Rev. Malcolm A. Caldwell who was Called and inducted on June 28th, 1984. Dr. Caldwell is a native of Sydney Mines and retired from ministry in June 1991. During the vacancy of approximately one year, the Rev. Neil J. McLean of Bras D’Or ably supplied the pulpit at Bethel. Mr. McLean retired from the Pastoral Charge of Marion Bridge – Mira Ferry in 1990. In June 1992, a Call was extended to the Rev. Robert Lyle of Central Parish (Clyde River, Canoe Cove, Churchill, Nine Mile Creek), Prince Edward Island. Mr. Lyle’s induction into Bethel took place on September 2nd, 1992. Mr Lyle served the congregation of Bethel and the Cape Beton Presbytery for thirty years and retired on August 31, 2022. The manse, which was purchased in 1944 was sold in September of 2022.
The old bell that hangs in the Church steeple of Bethel Presbyterian Church is well over a century old. It is the bell that was installed in the first Presbyterian Church built in Sydney on Charlotte St. opposite the Old Court House. In was also in the second Church building on Pitt St. Shortly after Bethel Church was built, the building on Pitt St. was removed and the bell was presented to Bethel Church. The inscription on the bell reads as follows: “Menellys, West Troy, N.Y. 1857 St.Andrew’s Church, Sidney, C.B.” According to this, the bell in Bethel Church is the oldest still in use in Sydney.