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The Beginning of Church Life in Kent

(Compiled from papers on the Roman Catholic Church, by Mrs. J. P. Dunn; the Church of England in Chatham, by Rev. Canon R. S. W. Howard; the Methodist Church, by the late W. E. Mckeough and Dr. A. A. Hicks; and the Presbyterian Church. in Chatham, by the late P. D. McKellar.)

To give, even in outline, the story of the various individual churches and congregations in Kent county, would require a volume much larger than this one. From pioneer days, religion has had a potent influence on community life; and the spiritual aspirations of the men who cleared the wilderness and the women who made homes for them is indicated by the eagerness with which they welcomed the early itinerant messengers of the gospel and the sacrifices they made to secure ministers and congregations of their own.

It seems probable that the first religious services in the present Kent county were conducted by the Jesuit missionaries who visited the Neutral Indians in the first half of the seventeenth century. The pioneer white settlements along the River Thames were visited from time to time by missionaries from Detroit, and the first religious edifice in Kent county was a small Roman Catholic chapel, built on the site of the present St. Peter’s church by Rev. Father Jean Baptiste Marchand of Sandwich, who held services there once a month. The church records date back to this chapel’s dedication, on July 8, 1802, on which day the first baptism, that of Michael Deloge, aged 10 months, was recorded.

Father Marchand was succeeded in 1819 by Rev. Father Crevier, during whose pastorate the first Roman Catholic church in Kent was erected on this site in 1823. This white frame church was for many years a landmark on the lower Thames till its destruction by fire on October 28, 1895, when the present fine brick structure was erected.

Meanwhile in the year 1836 Right Rev. Alexander McDonell, bishop of Kingston — in whose diocese Kent was then situated — received from the government a grant of land for a church at Chatham. Pending the building of a church, services were held in private homes by missionaries from St. Peter’s and Sandwich. In 1845, with the advent of Rev. Father Joseph Vincent Jaffre, the building of a church was definitely undertaken, and on May 30, 1847, the corner stone of the first St. Joseph’s Church was laid. In the pastorate of Rev. Father William, between 1878 and 1889, the present church was erected, though many improvements have since been made to the original edifice. Within comparatively recent times the Church of the Blessed Sacrament has been erected in North Chatham.

To Rev. Father Morin, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in 1845, was due the building of a small chapel to serve the growing Catholic population of Pain Court. In 1854 the first Church of the Immaculate Conception was begun, and, on its destruction by fire 70 years later, a brick church was constructed, being replaced in 1912 in the pastorate of the gifted Father Emery by a magnificent Gothic structure.

While the first religious edifice in Kent was built outside Chatham, most of the Protestant denominations had their beginnings in that community. The first church in Chatham was built in 1819. Prior to that time Rev. Richard Pollard, stationed at Sandwich, was the first missionary of the Church of England to Kent county, and it was apparently due to his efforts, backed by the loyal support of his Chatham parishioners, that St. Paul’s Church was erected. It occupied a site on the north side of the present Stanley Avenue, almost opposite Victoria Park, with the rectory on one side and the burying ground on the other. Rev. Thomas Morley, about 1827, was the first resident clergyman.

Of the ministers who succeeded him, the one who made the most lasting impression on the community was the Rev. Francis William Sandys, the first to bear the title of rector, who took charge in 1848 and whose diligent pastoral journeys took him to communities throughout a large area. It was during his rectorship, continuing till 1894, that the present Christ Church was built, being opened for divine service on August 26, 1861. The old St. Paul’s Church continued in use as a mortuary chapel till its destruction by fire in 1869. In 1875 the present Holy Trinity Church in North Chatham was erected.

The settlers of the Methodist faith were, in the pioneer days, ministered to by the circuit riders who, traversing the blazed trails on horseback, held their services in school houses and farm homes. Of these circuit riders, Rev. Nathan Bangs was an outstanding example.

In 1809, William Case was appointed missionary to the "Detroit circuit" — a mission 240 miles long with 12 regular appointments, the greater part being in Canada. Though the work was interrupted by the War of 1812 (most of the Methodist missionaries being American citizens) the records show continuous growth in the ‘‘Thames circuit’’ from which the "London circuit" was detached in 1823. In 1833 the Methodist Episcopal body in Canada united with the British Conference to form the Weslcyan Methodist church, and thenceforth Chatham and the Thames circuit were supplied from the Wesleyan church.

Previous to 1841 services in Chatham were held in either the log school house on the present Central School site or in Private homes. In 1841 or 1842 the Wesleyan Methodists erected a church on King Street where the C.P.R. station now stands, Rev. Thomas Flumerfelt being the first Pastor. This building, seating about 400, continued in use until the erection of the Park Street Methodist Church, the foundation of which was laid in 1871, the building being completed and opened in 1874 with Rev. W. S. Griffin as pastor.

In the late 50’s the Primitive Methodists formed a Society in Chatham, meeting first on the north side of the river and later on King Street West. About 1867 they erected a little brick church at the corner of Wellington and Centre streets, with Rev. Manley Benson as minister. This edifice, now relegated to worldly uses, is still standing.

In 1877 the Canadian Methodist Episcopal denomination built the Victoria Avenue Methodist Church, Rev. Wm. Godwin being the first pastor. A little later the Methodist Church of Canada (in which the Wesleyan Methodists and the Methodist New Connection had been merged in 1874) erected a small frame church on Elizabeth Street. After the union of all the Methodist churches in Canada in 1884, the Park Street and Victoria Avenue churches between them carried on the work of the Methodist denomination in Chatham, the other edifices being abandoned.

When, in 1837, Alexander McIntosh, P.L.S., surveyed part of the town of Chatham, supplementing Iredell’s original survey, a 10-acre tract bounded by William, Wellington, Prince and Park streets was reserved for the benefit of the Church of Scotland. The first visit of a Presbyterian minister was in 1841 when Rev. William Findlay came to organize a Presbyterian church and urge the people to erect a place of worship. But the schism in the parent Church of Scotland about that time, and the difficulty of financing the building enterprise, delayed completion of the new church till 1847, Rev. John Robb, who came in 1853, being, apparently, the first regular minister. The church was rebuilt in 1869.

Meanwhile, adherents to the United Presbyterian church had purchased a site on Wellington Street, the building of a brick edifice being started in 1812 and completed in 1844 when Rev. James McFayden became the first minister, Rev. Angus McColl came to Chatham in January, 1848, as minister of the Free Church of Scotland. As they had no church, and the Old Kirk congregation had one but no minister, union services were held in the same edifice, with Rev. Mr. McColl ministering to both congregations, until the arrival of Rev. John Robb in 1853. The congregations then parted company, and the Free Church people erected an edifice of their own at the northeast corner of Wellington and Adelaide streets. Rev. Mr. McColl’s ministry was a strenuous one; after serving his own congregation in the morning he would ride into one of the adjacent townships and hold afternoon services there, returning to Chatham for the evening service in his own church. This he did for years, till the outlying congregations became strong enough to engage ministers of their own.

The Free and United Presbyterian churches, which in 1875 had become connected with the Presbyterian Church in Canada, four years later united in Chatham under the name of the First Presbyterian Church, with Rev. Angus McColl and Rev. William Walker as joint pastors. In 1889, when Rev. F. H. Larkin succeeded to the pastorate, initial steps were taken whose outcome was the opening, in May, 1893, of the present First Presbyterian Church.

In the subsequent movement which resulted in the formation of the United Church of Canada, the Park Street, St. Andrew’s and Victoria Avenue churches entered the United Church, while the First Presbyterian Church fol— lowed the continuing Presbyterians.

While the Baptist congregations in Chatham date farther back, the present William Street Baptist Church was erected in 1874, the first minister being Rev. Archibald Campbell.

From these beginnings, largely in the city of Chatham, the religious and spiritual life of the various denominations of the entire county has been developed through the devoted ministrations of a succession of able pastors.

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