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Memories of Providence Church

March 6, 2024

Congregation gathered outside Providence Church after service, early 1940s

With Gail Johnson, Marion Mackenzie, Dave Stinson, Ken Stinson and Jethro Staples

At the start of the twentieth century, most rural neighbourhoods had their own school and at least one church—some hamlets, like Bury’s Green, had two churches for different denominations. Before the advent of the automobile, for most farm families, it was a special occasion to make it all the way to the nearest village—what today would be a ten-minute drive would take two or three hours when walking or taking the horse and carriage. Local community activities often centred around the church and school—there families gathered to celebrate important moments in their neighbours’ lives, holidays like Christmas and Easter, and just to spend time with neighbours they otherwise might not have the chance to see.

Automobiles started to become common around 1920, but many years passed before motoring became an everyday practice. Initially, roads were not plowed in winter, so horse and sleigh remained the practical option. But by the 1950s, practically everyone took automobiles for granted, and it opened a whole continent of new possibilities. Whereas their parents would have gone to the church that was within walking distance, in the era of the postwar boom, people had many churches to choose from, or could choose not to go to church at all—which would have been scandalous to some of their ancestors. As more farm families started to drive to town on a daily basis, many of the small neighbourhood churches would close in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Providence Church is one of the rare exceptions, maintaining a devoted following to this day.

The community of Red Rock dates back to the 1830s. William, Jane and James Junkin set out from Magheraculmoney, County Fermanagh, Ireland, as employees of their parish rector’s son, Richard Atthill. William and his wife Jane Gallagher arrived at Bobcaygeon in 1832, and spent their first winter at Sandy Lake in Harvey Township, before moving to North Verulam in 1833. In the 1830s, a disproportionate number of the residents of the Upper Kawarthas were aspiring young gentlemen. Most were younger sons, who would not inherit the family fortune. Too poor to live amongst the elite in Britain, they hoped by emigrating to live in the manner to which they were accustomed. Initially, most tried to live as landed elites—building an estate where they would oversee labourers who farmed.

Atthill brought the Junkins to settle on the north shore of Sturgeon Lake, where they would help him build his Brandeston estate. Within two decades, all of the genteel farming estates failed, and most of their proprietors would move on to professional careers—they had education. Many labourers who were brought to the region moved on, but not the Junkins. All but one of William’s siblings followed him to North Verulam—a total of eight, plus one first cousin. In the first generation Junkins married Ingrams, Ellises and Pattersons—and together they became the progenitors of a large proportion of North Verulam. It is not far from the truth that all the old families in the area either are Junkins or are related to them.

The Junkins had once been Huguenots, who moved to Ireland in 1685, after King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, prompting the confiscation of their property. By the time they emigrated from Ireland they had joined the Church of Ireland (Anglican), but not long after they came to Canada they became Methodists.

Religion was a very important part of society in Upper Canada. Many of the (aspiring) elite were Conservative and Church of England (Anglican)—the so-called Family Compact. The Anglican elite tended to frown upon the Methodists, their emotional religion, and their (often lay) preachers—“uneducated itinerant preachers,” who preach the gospel “without any preparation to teach what they do now know, and which… they disdain to learn,” in the words of Bishop of Toronto John Strachan. Methodism was a very popular religion, with many enthusiastic, evangelical preachers, where worshippers often had intense religious experiences—shockingly so, to the book-learned upper class Anglicans. After the Upper Canada Rebellion, the colony moved in the direction of religious tolerance (at least of non-Anglican Christian denominations) and Responsible Government (i.e, being responsible to the electors). But everyone was expected to be a Christian, in an era when Sabbath Breaking (working on Sunday) was a serious matter.

Whereas the Anglican Church had support from the state and were typically able to build churches within a few years of forming, the other Protestant denominations held meetings at the homes of their adherents. By the 1860s, Red Rock was maturing as a farming community—named after the conspicuous Precambrian outcropping that stood as a lookout over neighbouring farms and afforded a view of Sturgeon Lake. A family lived on most lots, most had a log home to live in, and all were progressing towards having cleared fields. While the first generation tarried just to make a farm, in the second generation, new comforts became possible.

In 1859, a group of Methodists was meeting in a log building on the corner of the Knox farm (Lot 16, Concession 2, Verulam), which was called ‘Knox Church.” By 1870, this group had become known as Knox’s class, and was gathering at Kelly’s School (later known as Red Rock School). In 1878, Bethel Church was built near the Knox farm, on the north-east corner of present-day Patterson Road and County Road 30. From 1880 to 1890, a new study group called Windrim’s class met at the Red Rock School (then a log building, located at the same site where the present brick Red Rock School was built circa 1899. Then the old log school was moved across the road, and still stands on the corner of the shed, with bright red siding.) By 1890, it had 58 members—more than many rural churches in the district. The local Methodists aspired to have a church of their own, within walking distance of their homes.

In 1890, the congregation purchased part of Thomas and Eliza Jane (Wray) Wilson’s farm for $25. The congregation held tea parties as fund raisers to be able to purchase lumber. The Jobling Brothers of Bridgenorth were hired to erect the church, as the neighbours chipped in as best they could to finish it. They had managed to get the job done before winter, and the church opened on November 2, 1890. Though the weather was inclement the next day and the roads were poor (back then rural roads were dirt roads, not gravel, so when it was wet the roads were muddy) the congregation met to dedicate Providence Methodist Church. Though it was anything but a pleasant day, it was a special occasion when the community at long last had a church, and they celebrated with an opening tea, under a tent and the pine trees across the road. “My great aunt Mary (Johnson) Junkin told me that they had a big, fancy cake for the occasion,” Gail says.

John Wellington Staples was one of the founding congregants, who proposed the name. “Wasn’t it providential that we got it built considering all the hardships in the community and the lack of resources!” With seven daughters and four sons, it meant a lot to his family, though the church was on a circuit with eight other churches. The founding families included: Stinson, Junkin, Staples, Johnson, Wilson, Edgar, Kelly, Martin, Thomas and McNeil.

In 1892, Red Rock became a post office community—operated by the Thomas Family out of their home. Three years later, Providence Methodist Church hosted a social at Thomas Kelly’s farm to fundraise for a Sunday School. 250 people attended—a remarkable number given that they were either walking or coming by horse and carriage. In the first years of the twentieth century, 24 families came to the church, which had an active Sunday School.

In many ways over the years, the neighbourhood came together at Providence Church. Activities centred around music and food. Some years a band was hired, or gramophones were used, ice cream makers or lanterns rented, and fruit and other food items bought from local merchants. The local economy was prosperous in the early twentieth century, and perhaps more luxuries were enjoyed than in some of the leaner years that were to come. Garden parties were both profitable fundraisers and entertaining events, providing a chance for young and old to socialize with their neighbours and guests from beyond the home community. When war broke out in 1914, local families did their duty, and four boys from the Church did not come home: Percy Junkin, T. Sherman McNeil, Charles Howard Stinson and Martin Johnson.

All across Canada, many communities had more than one Protestant Church, and many were getting by sharing a minister and relying on the volunteer labour of their congregation to maintain the building. On the prairies, some Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches began to unite, forcing the national churches to look at working together. Some Presbyterians (particularly in Southern Ontario, including Fenelon Falls, Bobcaygeon and Lindsay) held out and reconstituted as the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The others formed the United Church of Canada in 1925.

Though Providence Methodist Church had continued to be strong during Rev. J.M. White’s ministry (1918-1922), by the time of Church Union it was struggling. At the last service in 1926, only Clarence Junkin and Fred Johnson attended, prompting the church to close. Mrs. Mary Mackenzie would continue to volunteer to operate the Sunday School until 1928. For about a decade, the church sat vacant—it might have been one of the first local neighbourhood churches to close.

In 1936, Mary Mackenzie was again helping to teach Sunday School at the McNeil farm (Horseless Carriage Museum), assisted by Mrs. Wilson, and interest in having a community church returned. The next year the old church was cleaned and repaired to allow on-site Sunday School to resume—which continued until about 1944. In 1938, the church reopened, joining the Bobcaygeon Pastoral Charge, with Rev. C.C. Millar as minister. The congregation redecorated the church the next year, continued to host many socials, Bible Studies and even a minstrel show. In 1942, Providence United Church connected to the Hydro-electric grid—years before many farms in the township. Before that, candlelight services really were candlelight services.

“I was born in the year that the church reopened in 1938,” Jethro explains. Though there were other families with children in the neighbourhood, “there were few children coming here when I was young.” Some families brought their children to church dinners, but not regularly to service, “and there was nobody else that was my age.” In summer his family would take the car down the road to service, while in winter they would take the horses or walk.

“When I was about six years old, it was my first year in public school, and Santa Claus had not made it from Eaton’s that year, so Christmas really wasn’t. We did have some candy, but it was explained to me that I would not have Christmas on Christmas, but it would come along. When it did arrive, it was a coat unlike any I had ever had, with nice fur. The motivation was that since I was walking to school in winter, I needed a better coat. There used to be Watchnight Services on New Year’s Eve. The service was probably at 10 pm—I don’t think we were sticking to the real tradition of midnight, so everyone could get up and do things in the morning. Dad and I walked down together, and I remember walking in my nice warm coat. It was a milder night, and I felt invincible in that coat—I could have walked to Toronto.” Jack Staples (Jethro’s father, and son of founding member John Wellington) was the leader of the Bible Study.

Into the 1940s, winter travel was not something that could be taken for granted. “In 1946, the road from Fenelon to ‘Caygeon was closed for five days. I walked to Red Rock School and Elaine Junkin walked down from the north. On the way home, the snow was so deep [and perhaps the wires were hung so much lower than today] that we were playing with the telephone wire. Our teacher, Mrs. Parrish had me and my cousin Joe Wilson piling wood, when we heard the plow go by. To open the road in the spring, Jimmy Marshall used Reid’s big bulldozer.”

Soon after Providence church opened, a drive shed was built along the north fence, near the rear of the church, to provide shelter for horses. While many families today struggle to find the time to drive a car to church, for generations at Providence, the congregants would find the time to hitch up, head to church at a horses’ pace, unhitch, attend church, then repeat for the journey home. At some point, it also came to be used as a meeting hall for social gatherings. The west portion was two stories tall, mostly open at the front, on the lower level, except for a small enclosed area where the stairs and cook stove were located. A single storey, open horse shed extended to the east. There was a large upper room in the shed, but its purpose has been forgotten. It may have hosted church activities in the early twentieth century.  

“By the time I was there the second floor was not considered safe,” Marion remembers. “But the shed was used for horses in the winter. Then when the church was hosting a tea party, it became the dining room.” The church ladies would neatly cover the dirt floor with wood shavings, and decorate the shed. The men would help by carrying in tables and large drums of water for tea.” Because there was no running water on the property, water was brought in with milk or cream cans. After the church reopened in 1938, the hall (AKA drive shed) was used to host duck dinners which were popular.

Jack Staples brought his wife Harriet to the church to help prepare for an upcoming gathering. “When father went to crank the car to return home, it had been left in gear. It jumped ahead into the room full of ladies preparing the tables.” It knocked over the tables that the ladies had been working so hard to decorate, and stopped when it hit the far wall. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the car was scratched. Jack was remembered as a bit of a prankster, but this was no joke. “They took it quite well, and pulled everything together for the gathering by evening.”

During the 1940s and 1950s, many of the neighbours gathered at Providence Church to enjoy box socials, euchre and crokinole parties at Red Rock School (SS#10). The church suppers were perhaps the most fondly remembered. “It was a pot luck and it was pretty darn good,” Jethro remarks. “The thing you would remember most was what you had for dinner—there were a lot of things you wouldn’t have at home. The meat was pretty standard—they would have chicken. The dinners would not start for the season until everyone had garden produce. People prepared whatever they grew, with a little bit of sweetener, and a lot of pies. By the 1950s there was a cook stove on the left hand side in the first floor of the drive shed, that had been there for many years and was used to prepare the meals.”

“Everyone donated their time and food,” Jethro observes. “Then everyone would pay for eating your donation. The church hoped that enough people would come that it would help with the finances. When I was a kid, the second storey was not used at all, it was a no go. Maybe you could sneak up there after school, but it was quite a thing to get up there.” By the 1950s, though the congregation enjoyed attending the dinners, the impromptu dining room was getting old, so it was sold to Norman Drinkwalter in 1957 (he reassembled it on his farm) “and there were no more dinners after that.”

Providence relied on a wood stove for heat, that Jethro helped look after. “I would come down with Dad in the morning to light the fire. Then we would have to come back later to control it or add more wood. In the early twentieth century, everyone was cutting wood, so there would be no problem with supply.” But in 1953 the church ran short, so the stewards organized a wood cutting bee at Harlan Kelly’s on March 1 to tide it over until spring. Starting in 1954, caretaking was done on a monthly volunteer basis.

Providence Church had an organ since the early 1900s, and capitalized the opportunity to upgrade in 1945, by acquiring the second-hand pump organ from neighbouring Bethel Church. At Providence, the organ sat between two little steps behind the pulpit. “Several women from the congregation took their turn as organist in the 1950s and 1960s, including Ruby Martin, who played year after year. It was a volunteer position,” Gail recalls. “It was squawk, squawk, sqwak until you got it going,” Dave continues. “It was not the easiest to play.” In 1964 the church sold the old pump organ and invested in an electric model, which served for 25 years. Since then it has been followed by two more modern electric organs. “There would be a special musical service on Christmas Sunday and I can remember the public school concerts.”

Going to church was much more formal in the 1950s than it is today. “Everyone had a bath, and made sure they cleaned their ears and finger nails,” Ken says. Before (heated) running water, taking a bath was quite an undertaking, involving filling pails at a hand pump, and heating them at the woodstove. But though it was so much more trouble, everyone made the effort to come dressed as their Sunday Best. “Dad would have on his white shirt, tie and jacket,” Jethro narrates. “While mother would have on one of her better dresses. It would not happen that you would wear shorts to church in summer time.” And there were not cushions on the wooden pews either—that is a recent innovation. After church many of the men congregated outside to smoke—it might even be seen as healthy back then. The congregation’s doctor (head of U of T medical department) smoked a pipe, while most others “would go out and roll their own,” Ken continues. “Roy Martin would light a match with one hand.”

The post-war Baby Boom resulted in a lot of Providence families with young children. Starting in 1953 and continuing until 1971, another generation of dedicated church mothers gave their time and talents as teachers of Sunday School. It was easier for some than others, but they all left lasting impressions on the kids. “I was among the young ones when it began, and progressed through the three classes until my early teen years,” Gail explains. “My Mom was a teacher and later the superintendent during these years so attendance was not a choice for me! Ruby Martin, Cathy Kelly, Alice Johnson, Harriet Staples, Miriam Stinson and Phyllis Junkin were teachers that I remember from my Sunday School years, other mothers taught in later years.”

 “Sunday school was pretty casual,” Ken recalls. “There were no readers or catechisms. The class leader would read a passage from the Bible and we would have a discussion. There was no anxiety about the lessons, and no testing.” Some students felt as though they did not necessarily have to listen, or learn anything, but they did have to show up. “Afterwards there would be socializing and snacks. You got to see people you had not seen since last Sunday. As a kid I was fascinated with the adults, watching how they would interact, and what they would talk about. They would all stand in a certain way. Everyone looked up to Jethro’s Dad, Jack Staples, and would listen to his jokes.” After church the minister would often visit a member of the congregation.

In the 1960s, the MacAlpineFamily joined the congregation. Gladys often came to service and was remembered for her brilliant “red hair and bubbly personality.” Gladys took an interest in improving the church, and persuaded her husband Rod to design and donate a steeple and bell. It was installed in 1967, and dedicated at service on July 2. “It totally changed the look of the church,” Jethro remarks. For 56 years, the church bell has called across the fields on Sunday morning before service. There have been many bell ringers over the years, the most recent being Stanley Martin and now Jim Prescott.

Up to the 1970s, Providence held weekly service as part of a three-point charge with Dunsford and Bobcaygeon’s Trinity United. Dorothe Comber donated a subscription to the United Church Observer magazine for all members for a number of years. But at the same time the church was struggling to keep up financially. In 1972 and 1973, it closed from January to March. The next year a fire started at the woodstove and caused extensive damage to the southeast corner. Services moved to Red Rock School during the repairs. The church was modernized, but the faithful old members of the congregation were struggling with the question of how to make the church viable. In 1980, the congregation decided that moving forward the church would just be open in the summer, using guest ministers, with a special musical performance and refreshments afterwards. This format has worked so well that it continues to this day.

In many ways Providence has changed little since it opened. “There is a novelty to it being a small rural church—the friendship and fellowship,” Marion explains. “It is a very relaxed and very welcoming.” Only now, you don’t have to wear your Sunday Best to attend. The church still gets by with an outhouse out behind the church, “at one point it became part of a shivaree on top of someone’s house,” Ken recalls. Up to the 1980s, the church was not even locked. In 1985 the congregation held a garage and bake sale to raise the money to install cushions. Four years later the church added a speaker system.

In 1990 Providence Church celebrated its 100th anniversary. It was a year of special projects and events. Commemorative plates, mugs and note paper were sold, a history photo album of church families was created, and the year of celebration ended in the fall with Gail Johnson giving a slideshow presentation on the history of Providence Church. But the highlight of the year was the Anniversary service held on a beautiful sunny July Sunday. Invitations had been sent to everyone who had past connections with the community and a lot of them came. It was a fantastic afternoon of reminiscing and of course lunch was served in a big tent. “Looking back on the 100th, it is really special to me because it was like the end of an era. Many of the organizers and active church members were seniors at the time, they had witnessed so much of Providence’s history, and then in a few years many were gone.”

More recently the church has become home to the Providence Road Band—Grattan Young, Rob Nicholson, Brian Ellery, Dave Stinson, and Norma Edgar. Norma played the piano or fiddle, just as her mother, Stella, had once done as needed. Betty Knox often ad-libbed on piano with the band. When the band plays at the church, they often draw a good crowd. The church has several members whose ancestors were the neighbours who started the institution in the nineteenth century. The Stinsons have been involved for five generations. But the base has expanded. Today, many of the congregants grew up attending other neighbourhood churches in the area.

Providence Church has often adapted its services to its membership. For many years, they put on a Christmas Concert, where children acted out the nativity. The enthusiasm of the actors makes the shows unique and entertaining. One year, Stanley Martin dressed up as Kenny Rogers, with Laura Bennett as Dolly Parton, delivering a concert that was hilarious. “Stanley can certainly put on the act when he wants to,” Marion says. “Another year we had a donkey and different animals from the nativity. The donkey’s tail got caught on the Christmas Tree, and as it was pulling it over, there was a gasp through the church. Someone grabbed the tree and pulled it back up.”

Providence United Church begins each service by singing the Little Brown Church in the Vale. The lyrics, “No place is so dear to my childhood as the little brown church in the vale,” reflects what is special about the church. As many of the members were growing up, they really looked forward to seeing friends and neighbours as they gathered on Sunday. Throughout their lives, reflecting on scripture has helped shape who they are, as the world has changed around them. Today, it still is dear to their hearts. The old friends and neighbours still enjoy seeing each other at the little buff-brick country church located in the valley near Hawker’s Creek on Verulam Township’s Providence Road.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you:

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