Canadian History The
History of the Presbyterian Church in St Ann's
St. Ann's has the distinction of being the
first Presbyterian congregation in Cape Breton, and the Rev. Norman McLeod
the first minister to make his home on Cape Breton Island.
Previous to 1820 there were other
Presbyterians in Cape Breton, but widely scattered and without the
services of a regular minister. As early as 1789, the Sutherland family of
Sydney River, wrote to Dr, James MacGregor, of Pictou, to come to their
home to baptize their children. After a long journey from Pictou through
Grand Narrows and Little Bras d 'Or, he finally reached Sydney River to
minister to the needs of the Sutherland family.
Later, several Scottish presbyterians came
to Upper North Sydney. In 1802, the Rev. Alexander Dick ministered for a
few days in North Sydney. At that time there were not more than twenty
families in the whole of Cape Breton.
On a stormy day in May, 1820, "The
Ark", with her living cargo of men, women and children ran into the
St. Ann's Bay to escape shipwreck and loss of life from the storm which
was raging outside the Bay.
When "The Ark" dropped anchor in
St. Ann's Bay, she had the entire Presbyterian congregation on board. She
carried the minister, members and adherents of the congregation with all
their possessions. That same congregation had followed Mr. McLeod from
Scotland in 1817, to Cape Breton in 1820, and later to Australia in 1851,
and finally to New Zealand in 1854.
The people who came with Mr. McLeod to St.
Ann's in 1820 were all old friends, admirers and followers of this
extraordinary man. After a brief sojourn in Middle River, Pictou County,
Mr. McLeod decided to answer a call to Ohio, USA, and his band of
followers agreed to accompany him. "The Ark" was built in 1819,
and they left Pictou County in the Spring of 1820.
It is thought by some of the McLeod
descendants that Norman McLeod intended to settle in St. Ann's as a result
of an earlier visit, and that he was well acquainted with the land around
the Bay. There is no doubt that Scots from Pictou County came to Cape
Breton earlier than 1820, as requests for land grants are to be found at
the Provincial Archives. However, it is reasonable to think that the labor
intensive work that went into the building of "The Ark" was
intended for a greater voyage than the one to Cape Breton. We shall never
know, but it is likely that the storm had battered "The Ark" to
such a degree, that the haven of St. Ann's Bay proved to be such an
inducement to the storm weary travellers, that they decided to go no
further; and they decided to settle in Cape Breton. They believed that an
overruling Providence directed them to come to the Island, and to make
their home here.
The first years at St. Ann's were hard, but
the previous years at the Middle River in Pictou Co., had hardened the
settlers; and they were now accustomed to the area, and the work of
clearing land and building their log cabins.
They had no livestock, but the larder was
stocked with moose meat whenever it was needed. The meat was hauled into
the settlement on hand sleds, and salted down, or frozen until needed.
When cows and sheep became available, the
bears were a problem, and a corral of heavy logs had to be built, and all
livestock penned up for the night.
Very early in their stay at St. Ann's, the
first log church was built in the Black Cove. This building served the
needs of the St. Ann's people for several years. However, immigration
increased every year with settlers from Harris, Lewis and Skye, to such a
degree, that by 1840, all the land around St. Ann's Bay, the Baddeck area
and Boularderie was settled by people from the Hebrides and the western
shores of Scotland.
The log church was not large enough for the
congregation, so in 1846, a huge frame church, which could seat up to 1000
worshippers was built in the Black Cove. Worshippers came by boat, on
snowshoes, and on foot through the forest trails, from as far away as
Rev. Norman McLeod spent the best part of
his life at St. Ann's. He was 40 years old when he came from Pictou, and
he was 71 years of age when he left for Australia in 1851. During these 31
years under his care, the people grew and prospered. He was their
preacher, pastor and teacher. Under his patriarchal administration, St.
Ann's became distinguished for intelligence, rectitude and sobriety. He
was a mighty force for righteousness in this part of the Island.
Life in Cape Breton was carried on very
much the same as in old Scotland. Family ties and a close bond of
friendship kept the settlers in close touch with each other. Anyone in
need was looked after by the neighbour. At times of sickness or trouble,
the women gave freely of their time and assistance to the needy family.
All types of labour were organized into
working bees or frolics. Such work as barn raising, hay making, bush
clearing and the harvesting of crops was made easier by the impact of many
Life was hard for the pioneer woman, and it
can truly be said that "woman's" work was never done. There was
the everlasting work of providing meals for the family, washing clothes,
spinning and weaving and quilt making, as well as butter making, to name a
few of the chores which constituted the work of the pioneer woman.
The families were large in those days, and
children learned at an early age that they must work to help out. The
girls helped in the house with numerous chores, caring for 11 younger
brothers and sisters; and the boys helped with the farm chores.
The pioneer women of St. Ann's wore the
drugget skirts and shawls for everyday wear; but on Sunday, the best black
dress and bonnet was worn to Church.
The mark of a married woman was a frilly
white bonnet called a curth or mutch. It was always worn outside the home.
A special iron was used to prepare the ruffle.
For everyday wear the men wore the heavy
homespun cloth (clo) made into pants and shirts but for church and
meetings they wore a broadcloth coat and a black silk hat. They had a
special sense of proper dress, and the women took great care of the good
Life at St. Ann's was centered around the
church and school, and the influence of the Rev. Norman McLeod was the
pivot around which all the community revolved. As soon as the settlement
was housed, he opened a school at St. Ann's. Navigation was a subject on
which he laid great importance. As a result, many of the young men of the
congregation went to sea. Ships were built at St. Ann's, and regular trips
were made to the West Indies and Britain.
In 1848, a famine came upon the community
of St. Ann's. Early and late frosts ruined the crops, and the fishing was
not successful. Rev. Norman McLeod had to apply to the government for
assistance. In the middle of the famine, a letter arrived from Donald
McLeod, the minister's son. He had left home some years before, and had
finally arrived in Australia. He highly recommended that country to his
father as a place of milk and honey, just the place that his father had
been looking for. Rev. McLeod was convinced that this letter was a sign of
Divine Providence. He became convinced that he and his people should go to
Preparations were made to get ready for the
trip, and a vessel was built at the Black Cove. She was built by the
McGregor brothers, and was a barque of 236 tons. Rev. Norman gave her the
name "Margaret", after his daughter.
The "Margaret" sailed on October
28, 1851. After touching at the Cape Verde Islands and Capetown, she
reached Port Adelaide on April 11, 1852. There, Rev. Norman McLeod found a
letter from Donald, saying that he had gone to Melbourne. The
"Margaret" sailed on May 27, and reached Melbourne on June 4,
The Cape Bretoners found life in Australia
hard, and many of the men went to the gold fields to work.
Typhoid fever struck the settlers, and many
died. Norman and Mary lost two of their sons. For a long time he was
depressed and believed that providence was angry with him. Finally, in
desperation, he made arrangements with Sir Earl Grey, Governor of New
Zealand to obtain a large grant of land in the North Island. There he
could keep all his people together. Here indeed, was a land of "milk
and honey". The soil was fertile, the climate mild, and ready cash
was available from the sale of Kauri gum. In all, six ships left Cape
Breton for New Zealand, and all went well on the voyages. Friends and
neighbours were reunited in New Zealand, and all settled in happily to
make a new home there. When they thought longingly of home, it was not
Scotland's braes and glens that they longed for, but the hills of St.
Ann's, and the golden blaze of autumn trees. In many cases, there were
loved ones left behind, and they knew that they would never see them
The Rev. McLeod settled into the new life
with his people, and guided and controlled their lives as before. When he
could no longer stand to preach, he held the Sabbath services from his
bed, and his flock gathered outside the open window to hear him. Faithful
to the end, they listened with love and respect to their revered leader.
He died in March, 1866, at the age of 86. His last words to his flock
were: "Children, children, look to yourselves; the world is
In St. Ann's the religious customs of the
Highlands of Scotland were carefully followed for many years. The family
"altar" was in every home, and family worship was held every
morning and evening; grace was always said at meals.
The Sabbath was the most important day of
the week. No cooking or ordinary chores were done. The potatoes were
cooked and the Sabbath meal prepared on Saturday. Even the water was
Everyone went to church. They came to the
big church at the Black Cove from twenty-five or thirty miles away. They
came on foot, by row boat, or by sled in the winter time.
It was not uncommon to hold a two or three
hour service. On occasion, Rev. Norman McLeod was known to preach an
additional sermon in English for a listener who could not understand
Although Rev. Mr. McLeod was ordained, he
rarely administered the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. After he departed
for New Zealand, the congregation was vacant for five years, with the
exception that itinerant preachers supplied the pulpit.
In 1856, Mr. Abraham McIntosh was called to
be the minister of St. Ann's. It was at this time that the greatest
celebration of the year, the Sacrament, was started in St. Ann's. The
"Sacrament" was held once a year, and lasted from Thursday to
Monday. The meetings were held in the open air, as no buildings were large
enough to hold the crowd. They came from far and near, and stayed with the
kindly people of St. Ann's who must have been hard pressed to feed and
lodge so many people. Thursday was the "Fast Day". No food was
taken until evening. Friday was "Question Day". A passage was
read from Scripture, and one by one, the men were invited to expound on
it. No woman was allowed to speak. Women had to keep silent, and listen to
the men. Saturday was the day when candidates for church membership were
tested by the minister and elders.
For years, the yearly Sacrament service was
held on the site where the South Haven Community Hall now stands. A small
building served as a shelter for the minister. Nora and Tottie remember
the people sitting around on the ground, and the rain pouring down on the
congregation. The women had shawls and bonnets, but the men were bare
headed. No one had any thought of moving until the service was finished.
As a Gaelic psalm was being sung, the
partakers of the Sacrament rose from the ground and advanced to the table,
which was covered by a snow white cloth. On presentation of a token, the
Sacrament was administered to them. This occasion was of greatest
importance to the early settlers, and showed the devotion and sincerity of
their religious beliefs.
The last outdoor Sacrament service was held
in 1922 when the Reverend Murray was the minister.
As the years went by, the old customs
changed, and the big church at South Haven became the combined
congregation of St. Ann's and Englishtown.
The St. Ann's communities became smaller as
young people left the Island to find work elsewhere. This is still the
pattern of life; but they retain their love of home, and Cape Breton; and
very often come home to retire.
Many descendants of the Scottish settlers
are going on trips to Scotland to seek the places where their ancestors
came from. The bond is still there, and the Celtic spirit is strong.
The Gaelic College, St. Ann's, and the
Highland Village, Iona, strive to retain the Gaelic language and culture.
The ties with New Zealand are amazingly
strong after all these years, and distant cousins visit between the two
The 1989 twinning between Waipu, St. Ann's
and Baddeck has already sparked a renewed interest and exchange between
the two countries. Already culture and heritage exchanges are planned.
We look to the future with great
expectation and hope.
SHIPS SAILED TO NEW ZEALAND
"MARGARET" - built at Black Cove,
St. Ann's in 1851, sailed for New Zealand - 140 passengers, including the
Rev. Norman McLeod.
"HIGHLAND LASS" - Built at
Baddeck River, sailed for New Zealand in 1852 - 136 passengers.
"GERTRUDE" - Built in PEI
Refitted in St. Ann's, sailed for New Zealand in 1856 - 190 passengers.
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