Dunedin’s Knox Presbyterian Church marks 150th anniversary

 In Community

2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the construction of the first Church building for the congregation of Knox Presbyterian, an integral part of the community of Dunedin. Following is first of a short series of portraitures describing our collective community history, in particular this congregation’s journey. This article begins with our historical origin. 

The first wave of Christianity arrived here in the summer of 1615 with explorer and founder of New France, Samuel de Champlain, his political and trading associates including Jesuit Missionary, Father Le Caron marking the first European arrival. In January of 1616 they began their travels south and west from the Penetanguishene peninsula throughout the river basin now known as the Nottawasaga watershed, establishing contact with each of the greater Wyandot (Wendake) or Huron native communities. There is evidence of one semi-permanent Petun era village perched along the escarpment, within 2 kilometers of our hamlet. It is not a stretch to presume interaction. Pandemic disease would eventually weaken the society. The Indian Wars pursued. The French aligned Huron/Wyandot nation were defeated by the British aligned Iroquois/Haudenosaunee. The remnant Huron/Wyandot and surviving Jesuit priests were driven first to Christian Island and those who survived the winter of 1649 made their way south to exile in the Carolinas. By 1700 the once vibrant agricultural and trading nation of an estimated 32,000 inhabitants ceased to exist, their territory returning to wilderness until the American revolution changed everything.

The hamlet known originally as Bowerman’s Hollow was truly an Upper Canada frontier, first settled in March 1833 by the United Empire Loyalist, Israel Bowerman family who walked from Prince Edward County. The last leg of their journey would have been on a network of native trails running along the escarpment intersected by the 17th century French trade ways or by British military routes established during and after the war of 1812/14 connecting the block houses at Wasaga, Fort Willow and Barrie. They had embarked under British commission to open settlement for the continuing influx of Americans seeking restitution and a growing northern European immigration, all in search of economic prosperity under the Crown. Upon reaching their destination the first “shanty” was erected beside the as yet un-named river, today we believe it stood by the Village Green park gates near Noisy River bridge. They had estimated the settlement to be on the planned Hurontario Street then under survey but missed it diagonally, by a ½ kilometer to the west. The settlement was formally recognized the following year upon the establishment of municipal governance. Simcoe County at its outset reached north west toward Sydenham, today’s Owen Sound, south west to pre-Orangeville era Erin, north east to Gloster Pool and the Severn, following along the west shore of Lake Simcoe and south east to Holland Landing. Within this district, our township, first called Merlin or Java, then Mulmur was “not so finally” named Nottawasaga, a Wyandot proclamation describing the annihilation of the Huron nation, literally translated “outburst of the Iroquois”. Today of course we are part of Clearview Township, west Simcoe.

While the community, often referred then as the Yankee Settlement grew commercially the early settler’s religious affiliation remained reflective of their origin. Under the early land grant system, the Crown allotted clergy reserves, blocks of land, usually 100 acre farms, scattered among the concessions. These were usually intended to be assets within the Church of England. This may have been the incentive for the earliest churches of that denomination. For the settlement of Bowerman’s Hollow however, the pioneer population were more culturally diverse. New England Episcopalian yes, but also German Mennonite and Lutheran, English Anglican and Methodist, French Huguenot, Dutch Reformed and both Scot and Irish Presbyterian. This Celtic reformed segment was bolstered by a second wave of settlers who arrived from Port Hope. (Jewish, Hindi and Eastern Orthodox representation in our community would follow as early as the 1880s, but these are, albeit fascinating, stories for another day.)

It was not until the mid 1860s that a group of progressive village and rural pioneer families began to meet regularly as a congregation of worshipers. These early services were held in schools and private homes at Madill, the Glen and in the Hollow. Nationally, the short lived colony of Canada West under the Canada Constitutional Act ceded to become the Province of Ontario within Confederation and locally, the Royal Post Master changed the hamlet’s name to Dunedin after the New Zealand namesake. Amid this groundswell of change the congregation grew in numbers and began to meet at the large cedar log home of John and Eleanor Best each Sunday. Located just north of the hamlet, today this farm is the week-end home of the Bruce Davies family.

Congregationally led meetings in the reformed tradition then as now, permitted religious services and even burial by laypersons when called upon out of necessity but required ordained clergy for sacramental events such as Holy Communion as well as for marriage and baptism. The only clergy available were the Circuit Rider missions serving many remote settlements over large expanses. These riders were educated, ordained ministers representative of many reformed denominations but here, most were Methodists and Presbyterians.

One such missionary denomination was the Presbyterian Free Church. These horseback missionaries would plant the seeds for a significantly high concentration of Presbyterian congregations throughout the area. Before and after each service a rider would be dispatched on horseback to meet and accompany the circuit preacher to and from the meeting home to ensure safety on trail as far as it would take to meet the next companion rider. Like their Jesuit predecessors’ these early ecclesiastic travellers followed native trails but also the new concession roads being carved form the forest on the British grid system much as we know it today.

The first Circuit “preacher” recorded to have offered Holy Communion at Dunedin was the Reverend James Greenfield in 1862. His circuit extended from Bowmore, today’s St. Paulʼs/Emanuel Duntroon to “Scarlet Hill” in Mulmur. For six years, Rev. Greenfield had an appointment at the Best’s. Thus began the newly formed “Free Church” Presbyterian Congregation at Dunedin. Another circuit Minister, Rev. Cairns, advanced in years had formerly been settled near Oakville, his previous congregation scattered in the disturbance of the Mackenzie rebellion. As the congregation strengthened and grew, so did a demand for a Church building. Land was provided by William Young on today’s Turkey Roost Lane. The sanctuary proposed was a modest frame structure in the Greek revival tradition. Funds were raised, each family committing $25, providing no debt incurred and “completed to key” for not more than $400. In the end a larger plan, 28’ x 40’ church was contracted to James Scarrow of Mulmur, for $425, delayed by one year to raise the last $100 secured by canvas courtesy of John True and William Young, dedicated with no burden of debt, in 1868. It was said the Mr. True had the separate bundles of silver which he had received, rolled in paper just as he laid them away.

This spiritual transition for the congregation from a nomadic entity to a physical home marked the end of the Circuit Rider era, that mission complete. It also marked the beginning of an interesting journey for this Presbyterian Church community. Our next portraiture will explore the progression of the church within the fabric of the Dunedin community.

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