THE CHURCHES OF LAIRD
Compiled and Researched by Tom Headrick
The Presbyterian Church
The history of the Presbyterian Church in the township is interesting. Previous to the erection of a Presbyterian church in Laird those of that faith met with the Presbyterians at MacLennan – a long and arduous trip by wagon. The MacLennan congregation had become divided through disagreements on several matters; for example, the type of music used in service. As a result, the older group, maintaining the strict Presbyterian views became known as the “Oatmeals” and the younger group with a more modern outlook were known as the ”Philistines”. It has not been determined to which group the Laird Presbyterians belonged.
After the first S.S.#1 School was built, church services were held there, served by the ordained and unordained who preached at MacLennan. Outdoor services were often held under the trees on the Reuben Evoy property when the weather was fit, but it was soon obvious that a better solution had to be found. Area Presbyterians then decided to build their own church.
Construction and planning were initiated in the fall of 1891. With winter fast approaching, it was decided to hire a carpenter to oversee the project because most members of the church were busy performing their farm duties before the start of winter. The site selected for the church was located on Section 5, along the MacLennan-Soo Road on property belonging to Will Hollingsworth. The boundaries of the property were to measure 8 rods west, 5 rods north, 8 rods east and 5 rods south to commencement point, as the deed for the land points out.
With the site selection complete and work ready to begin, Malcolm MacNeil was hired as carpenter. His wages for the project were agreed upon as $50.00, and his room and board were provided by Ed Hollingsworth. All the lumber, shingles, finishing materials and labour for the project were contributed by the members of the church. An item of interest is that Mr. Hollingsworth collected $52.00 from the many commercial travellers who called at his store, in order to purchase new door and window frames from a supplier in Collingwood. By a fortunate coincidence, it so happened the bill for these materials was exactly $52.00.
Plastering and interior work on the church was completed by Thomas Muldoon. Mr. Rob Wilson, who lived close to the new church, often spoke of the discomfort he endured while holding nails in his mouth, in order to use them on the shingles for the roof which was done in cold weather. The first seating used consisted of wooden planks and blocks. At a later date, chairs were purchased for .25 cents each to replace the planks. The present pews were put in by Fred Brown. The original pulpit was made by Dan McIver, who later built the Maple Leaf School.
With the building complete, services began in the spring of 1892. The average collection collected each Sunday was $2.00 or on a good day, $3.00. The first minister was the Rev. J.P. McGinnis, with Mr. Will Hollingsworth as first secretary treasurer. Board of managers was made up of David Andrews and James McHardy. Mrs. Ed Hollingsworth helped to organize the First Ladies Aid and became the first President with Mrs. Tom Taylor, Mrs. Hunter, Mrs. Barclay, Mrs. Lothian, Mrs. Dave Andrews and the Misses Maud Lothian, Belle Wilson, Mary Wilson, and Jean Wilson. Mr. William Evoy was the first Sunday School Superintendent and his daughter, Edith Evoy, was the first organist, followed by Belle Fraser. Aird Hollingsworth and Mary McBain were the first children baptized and Duncan Fremlin and Lulu Brown were the first couple married.
Many ministers, lay persons and student ministers have conducted services at Knox over the years. One such person who made great strides in Christian work was Rev. MacGillivray who later became moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Canada.
During its existence many celebrations were held, including the 50th (1942) and 80th (1972) anniversaries. Over the years many special dedications were made as well. These included a new pulpit donated by the R.D. Curry family; a new electric organ in memory of Thomas Fraser, the Walter Greenwoods, the Ed Hollingsworths, Stonewall Chappell, the Duncan Fremlins, the John Archibalds, Herb Lapishes as well as Miss Pansy Smith, Alf Tuckett, Warden Headrick, Jack Johnston and Mrs. Wm. Buller. Along with these, new hymn books were donated by the Robt Wilson family and Mr. and Mrs. Tom Headrick presented a Baptismal Chalice and new Bibles in memory of their son, Peter.
All churches rely on the support of their women and Knox was no exception. Many in the area still remember the Ladies Aid sponsored strawberry socials and bazaars, as well as the the fowl suppers which were held as fund raisers. Regular maintenance budgets always seemed to have a shortfall in any church and the funds raised by the women covered a lot of the church expenses. A Presbyterian Summer School Camp at Pumpkin Point had been developed by the Presbytery for the entire district of Algoma and this was very active in the 1930’s. It actually opened in 1929 and the registry lists a total of 387 persons. Attendance ranged from a high of 85 persons in 1932, to a low of 35 in 1934, with average attendance around 62. This property was later sold to become cottage lots. However, for their share of the proceeds, the Knox church was given a portion of the land, which became the Laird Centennial Park in 1967. One of the last treasurers of the Ladies Aid was Mrs. Marion Fremlin, a position she held for 37 years.
In the years from 1959 when Knox became affiliated with St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Sault Ste. Marie, a succession of ministers conducted services, including the Reverends Nelson, Peter Jones, Brian McCutcheon, Victor Ford and Peter McKague, until in 1971, the Rev. Alan Ross arrived. He remained with the two churches until his acceptance of a call to a church in Bermuda in 1983. Church attendance for various reasons had decreased substantially and neither Knox nor St. Giles was able to continue to minister to its flock. After 96 years of worship, the final service at Knox was conducted on November 8, 1987, with Rev. David Jack as minister – a sad day, indeed. The church had been a light in the community by which men and women could gain a purer vision of a better life and increase their faith. As well, it gave testimony to the “faith of our fathers” and their belief in the true Christian values.
One of the stipulations on closing that the members insisted upon, was that the church be turned over to the township as a historic site, and made available for special services as the occasions arise. Their wishes were granted and this lovely old church has been cleaned and some attempts made to restore it to its former glory.
A second Presbyterian group began to meet in the S.S.#3 School. Laird Hill Presbyterians desired to build their own church in the area and a committee was formed, and a site chosen. The committee comprised of the Messrs. Caldwell, Schoales and Keating. In 1905, a large frame building was erected on a corner of the John Lidstone property, across from where the old log Methodist church stood. The years that followed until 1916, were difficult. Services were conducted by student ministers who only remained for short terms and were given room and board by church members. Interesting to note that as early as 1908, this church began to use the numbered envelope system. Average offering, only amounting to .50 cents a Sunday for the whole congregation, would hardly pay for the envelopes. An increase in attendance and members and activity around 1910, resulted in increased offerings as well. However. this was not sufficient to maintain the church, and in 1916, it closed its doors.
In 1925, a special meeting was called with a view to reopen the church. The increased interest and activity did credit to the enthusiasm and zeal of the Headrick, Thomlinson, Keating and Swire families. Gilbert Little arrived as student minister, and a caretaker, Wilfred Swire, was hired. With growth, the church managers decided to build a shed adjacent to the church. Soon, the ladies were busily organizing pie socials and other fundraising events to provide the necessary dishes, cutlery, pots and pans and books needed to furnish the building. The women were also included in congregational meetings and allowed to hold important positions in the church.
In the early ’30’s church life was active and varied. Picnics and field days were popular events and the ledgers of the church show some interesting figures. One such item was as follows: “Billie Reid – firing to June 14, 1935.”, which translated, meant that Billie Reid was hired to put the fire on each Sunday at the church for the first six months at .20 cents per.
However, with the church operating in the red, it became very evident that it could not continue without some very large fundraising effort. Sunday School was operating at a deficit as well, and the church closed its doors in 1935. The building was later moved to the corner of Highway 17 and Pumpkin Point Road to re-open as the Laird Township Hall. This building that fought valiantly through hard times, is still serving its township well as a community centre.
The Methodist Church
The Methodist cause had its beginnings at Bar River in the home of John Evoy who was a lay preacher. Mr. Evoy had conducted church meetings and preached sermons in his former home area, and had strong religious convictions and invited his neighbours to come to his home each Sunday to engage in the worship of God. He also would set on foot or horseback to conduct services in other centres around. In some cases, he would construct the coffin of the deceased and then preach the funeral service. The Methodist work in the area was still under the Garden River Circuit, which included the area from the Soo to Bruce Mines. Saddle-bag preachers began to serve the needs of the Bar River methodists, while Mr. Thomas Nott filled in for Methodist ministers in the southern end of the township. Many of the early records of these saddle-bag ministers have been lost to us, because of the habit they had of carrying all their work with them. Some of the earliest ministers in the area were the Reverends McKee, Grouse, and Parkinson. The latter died at Garden River. In 1889 – 90, the Rev. J.E. Wilson, from Echo Bay, served the Methodist needs for the Bar River area. Rev. J.D. Fitzpatrick followed and in 1890 the part of the Garden River Circuit including the Laird Township Churches, became known as the Port Findlay Charge. The Reverends T.G. McAtee, H.S. Lee, Gilbert Robinson and J.R. Wilkinson all served the Bar River Methodists after 1890 for brief periods of time.
It was 1897 that the Bar River Methodists became officially organized. With increasing membership and more settlers in the area, a central location had to be found for worship. The services moved to the Orange Hall, and in that year the Rev. John Coburn arrived from Toronto. Dr. Coburn returned in 1948 to help dedicate 50 years of worship in the United Church at Echo Bay. During that visit, he had the unique experience of being present at the Golden Wedding celebrations of Mr. and Mrs. Alex Stewart, the first couple to say their vows before him. In the year 1909 the residents of Bar River settlement got together and constructed the first Methodist Church. It was built on the Evoy property to the east of the village, in the heart of the fertile farmland that these early settlers dearly loved. The Rev. Austin P. Stanley was the minister of the day. His duties were described in church records as being assigned to the cares and concerns of the “Evoy’s Appointment”. It remained part of the Port Findlay Circuit until it became known as part of the Echo Bay Circuit and was known as such until 1925. The Methodist church had a unique feature which was a belfry with a bell which tolled out the hours of service and urged latecomers to “put an inch to their step”.
The idea of Church Union between the Methodists and Presbyterians had started but was abandoned for the period of the first World War. Economic concerns in church operations, and the need to combine community efforts were all in the minds of the residents. Finally in 1917, a church union meeting was organized at Echo Bay. During this same year, the Bar River congregation organized as a Union Church. The Bar River Methodist Church built in 1909 had been destroyed by fire, and a second church was erected across from the Orange Hall on the bank of the river. Church Union took place in 1925 and the Bar River charge became part of the United Church of Canada.
It was in the year 1890 that area residents in the vicinity of Laird Hill constructed a Methodist Church. This was a log building on what is now called Pumpkin Point Road, on the John Lidstone farm. Saddle-bag ministers served here as well and trustees met on occasion with the Tarbutt Methodists in order to conduct church matters in similar ways. The church finally closed in 1903 and the building remained mostly vacant from that point on.
In March of 1888, a meeting was held to form a building committee in the southern end of the township. Thomas Nott, a lay preacher, had been conducting services in homes, but there, too, the members increased in numbers so that this method of service was no longer feasible.
The building committee comprised of William Cash, Jacob Shewfelt, Thomas Nott, William Headley, John Armstrong, Robert Nott, Thomas Murray, Isaac Townsend, Albert Nott and John Irwin along with the Rev. Pickard. They decided on the church size, which was to be 21 feet by 34 feet long with three windows on each side. Property had already been donated by John Armstrong, just inside the boundary of Laird Township on what is now known as Government Road. The present day Tarbutt elementary school is just south of the church location. The name given to it was the Tarbutt Methodist Church because most of its members lived in the MacLennan area, Tarbutt Township.
Cost of the church was estimated at $330.00 complete, with wages set out at $1.50 per day per man, with each man responsible for his own board and tools. Any man hired with a team of horses was to be paid $3.00 per day. The church opened in 1889 with Rev. J.D. Fitzpatrick as minister. In 1890 wooden pews were added made by John Irwin and Robert Nott. The contract awarded each man was one dollar.
Painting of the church was completed, a porch added and an organ was bought for $70.00 from William Evoy of Bar River. A fence was added and two gates at the outside boundaries. Isaac Townsend was appointed the Church caretaker. Rev. John Coburn preached there in 1897 and stayed with the Thomas Notts. In his book, “I Kept My Powder Dry“, Dr. Coburn describes Mr. Nott as a “hard worker, a man of sound judgement and devout spirit”. On one occasion Rev. Coburn tells of waking on a Sunday morning ill, Mr. Nott told him to get himself in shape to preach at Tarbutt in the afternoon, and he would take the morning service at Laird. While being arrayed in his best garments, he turned to Dr. Coburn and asked where a certain passage in the Bible could be found, which referred to lifting up the Son of Man. He used this as his sermon to encourage the Laird parishioners to pay their share of the preacher’s salary. They asked Dr. Coburn later to send one of the other men rather than Mr. Nott if the need ever arose again. One other instance was on a visit to one Thomas Higgins, in the area who was not a member. When asked for a contribution to assist the Tarbutt Church, Higgins told Mr. Nott, “You wouldn’t ask a fellow to pay for such lame preaching as yon fellow hands out, would you”. Mr. Nott replied, “Oh but Tommy, this money is for the Lord’s cause you know”. Higgins answer was, ‘Well, if it is for the Lord, I suppose I’ll have to give you a dollar but if you had a decent preacher there, I’d give you two”.
The record books list the names of many ministers in the intervening years. Church receipts and expenditures list very interesting facts. Some boys who broke the church window were made to dig up the money to replace it. One of the duties mentioned in the minutes was that of “callers of subscription”. It was their duty to call on members and adherents of the church once every church quarter, to receive contributions to the minister’s salary.
Like many other churches in the area, church union became the topic of conversation among the church membership. It was in 1917, that the congregation of Tarbutt Methodist Church began to worship with members of the Presbyterian Church in MacLennan. In the years from 1921 to 1942, the Church was used as a school. It was later sold to Alvin Swire to be torn down and some of the material used to construct his new home.
The Methodist cause was very real and the desire to worship strong among the early settlers. Their courage, strong faith and hard work led to the establishment of three Methodist Churches within Laird Township in its early years, and the dedication and service to those churches will be long remembered.
The United Church of Canada
The event of Church Union was a topic of controversy for many, however, and with the decision made the Bar River Methodist Church became a part of the United Church of Canada, with Mr. Peter Renner as pulpit supply. Rev. Crawford Tate was the first ordained minister to preach to this newly formed congregation. A series of ministers arrived through the following years, and it was in 1935 during the ministry of the Rev. R. Gosse that the church burned to the ground. An overheated chimney set the roof ablaze and it could not be saved. Rev. Gosse encouraged the residents to rebuild and the present site on the bank of the river was chosen. Mr. Alfred Anticknap was responsible for construction, ably assisted by fellow church members. In the years that followed, the congregation was served by many devoted ministers.
As has always been the case, the women have been the back bone of the church. The first such group was called the Ladies Aid, and officers consisted of Mrs. Alex Stewart, Mrs. Oliver Shular, Mrs. Percy Howard, and Mrs. Gordon Evoy. Although the women remained the same, their official title changed to Women’s Association and then to the present one of United Church Women. Their responsibilities lay in furnishing the church with all things that did not come under the normal operating costs. The depression years did not slow down the growth of the church. Bazaars became popular, and the quilting bees, even though the hours of hard work necessary to complete one, only resulted in a sale of $6.00.
Don Evoy was paid the princely sum of $5.50 yearly for lighting the fire and Rilla Evoy earned .10 cents each week for keeping the church clean.
During the 1940’s a shed was added to keep the firewood dry. Mr. Anticknap was again hired, and it must have been an act of love, because I am sure the price of $25.00 would only have covered the material.
The minister’s salary was increased by $10.00 to cover living expenses, paid for, no doubt, by the revenue realized by the fowl suppers that took place. The women were, and still are, excellent cooks and catering remains one of the best fundraisers.
From Rev. George Roussom in 1951 through the next several years, the ministry changed several times, with the Rev. Arrol, Mr. Morrison, the Reverends Burtch, MacKenzie, Bowers, Stedman, Kaellgren until the arrival in 1973 of Rev. Bryan Lapier, the present minister.
During those years growth in the Sunday School made construction of an addition necessary, and in 1965, Keith Cook was hired to build an addition, 12′ by 22′. In a service on December 5, 1965, thirty years after the initial construction of the church, the new Christian Education Centre was dedicated.
The women again came through with all the necessary funds to supply 200 books to form a Church Library, which is housed in this new extension. Two of the earliest Superintendents were Ernest Evoy and Ernest Stewart, but the names of many area faithful are recorded as taking leadership roles, either as superintendent or teacher. The 60’s saw years of dedication being rewarded by life memberships to Mrs. Edith Stewart, Mrs. Mildred Becking and Mrs. Irene Cook.
The Bar River Centennial in 1974 saw the beginning of an organ fund. This was supported to such an extent that after the organ was purchased, a Memorial Fund was set up to which family members and friends could contribute in memory of their departed loved ones.
In 1975, over 2500 United Church members Joined in a special service in Sault Ste. Marie, to celebrate 50 years of union.
A new entranceway to the Church was added in 1985, again ably constructed by Keith Cook.
Previous to this, in 1980, Keith had been requested to erect a belfry on the top of the church, to house two speakers and chimes which were donated and dedicated by the Stewart Family on June 15th of that year, and when rung each Sunday, give the worshippers a musical and friendly greeting.
The Bar River Church was part of a three-point charge, including Echo Bay and MacLennan churches. The MacLennan Church closed its doors; however, the remaining churches are still very active.
The Roman Catholic Church
A need for a church to provide worship in the Roman Catholic faith, prompted the McKinnon Family of Laird to build their own. St. Gregory’s Roman Catholic Church was erected by the McKinnon brothers, all able carpenters, around the year 1923, on a portion of their farm on Section 29, at the corner of Rydall Mill Road and Highway #17. The families Ambeaults, Rouleaus and Aitkens worshipped with McKinnons each Sunday, with services being conducted by priests from the Church of the Precious Blood in Sault Ste. Marie. A small bedroom at the rear of the church enabled the priest to spend the night and return the next day to the city. A list of priest’s names includes those of Father Hussey, Father Witchich, Father Buckite, Father McLelland and Father Moore.
The church held great significance for the McKinnon Family when not only were two members of the family married there, but it was also the location for the funeral service in 1950, of Charles McKinnon, the man mostly responsible for its construction.
The construction of the 4-lane highway unfortunately caused the destruction of this lovely church.
Jehovah’s Witness Movement In Laird
For many years those that followed the Jehovah Witness religion in Laird met in private homes. As their numbers grew, the need was apparent for a building in which to conduct their meetings. A representative from Toronto visited the area with a view to combining all members from Bruce Mines to Bar River, and to assist in establishing a hall. A small parcel of land on Highway # 17, near the Pumpkin Point Road was purchased for the sum of $50.00 from Jim Khull.
Members worked long and hard, pulling together to complete the arduous task of obtaining building materials: some of which came up from Bruce Mines, and some down from Sault Ste. Marie. The first Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses opened its door in Bar River in 1948.
From this moment on the Hall became a very busy and important Bible Educational Centre. However, it quickly outgrew its accommodation and it was soon obvious expansion was necessary. Six years after the original construction was completed, an extension was added.
A lot of pioneer ministers were trained and educated in the Bar River Jehovah’s Witness Hall. Some of these pioneers left Bar River to engage in ministry in the Maritimes, Quebec and points in Ontario. At one point there were 61 publishers or ministers trained and pioneering who received their training at the Bar River congregation. It is interesting to note that a pioneer minister puts in 100 hours a month.
Some of the families responsible for the progress and growth of this ministry were the Brodies, Reids and MacIntyers. Elvie Brodie tells of his daughter’s wedding, not long after the new extension was added, when friends and relatives filled the hall.
The best known ministry of the Jehovah Witnesses, is that of the distribution of their literature from door-to-door. Their visits to homes in Laird Township as well as other areas have been an important part of their work and area residents have become familiar with the magazines “Awake” and ‘Watchtower”.
Again, the problem of over-crowding arose, and the congregation had to face another decision, of how to best provide greater accommodation. Other centres were quite successful in organizing and implementing “quick build projects”, where new buildings were completed by members in a very short period of time. It was thought that this method could be adopted here, and in 1990, the Laird Hill Kingdom Hall was sold. A new attractive building on the outskirts of Desbarats was erected, completely finished and landscaped by volunteer members, in just a few days. The Tranberg, Zelonko and MacLean families are just a few who have joined with others in furthering the ministry in the area.
From such a humble beginning in 1943, sheer determination and a strong faith in what can be done if you work together, have resulted in a beautiful building where future generations of Jehovah’s Witnesses can meet for many years to come.
More Information On Laird Churches:
Laird History Volume Two – Churches