A History of the Elgin-Portland Pastoral Charge
Elgin United Church, Elgin Portland United Church, Portland
Please see the individual histories below for more information pertaining to each church.
The history of the Elgin-Portland Pastoral Charge, in the northern reaches of Leeds County, begins with the early settlement of the area in the late years of the 18th Century. The township of Bastard and South Burgess (Portland area) was founded in 1794, when settlers began to locate in the area. In South Crosby Township (Elgin and surrounding area) it is said that Methodism was founded in 1800 by a Mr. Abraham Coon (there are still members with this surname on the roll of Elgin United Church!). The congregations conservatively date the beginnings of organized Methodist worship in the area, held first in fields and homes and subsequently in schoolhouses, to approximately the year 1804.
Many of the oldest settlers in the area fought the Americans in the War of 1812, and according to historical records held by the Charge a number who fought in that war went on to become Circuit Riders. One such name is Thaddeus Lewis. It is said of another of the travelling preachers, the Rev. Henry Ryan, that his voice “was fitted for preaching in the open glades of the forest.” His tone was “quiet and musical” in ordinary conversation, “but when he lifted up his voice it was like the roar of a lion.” Of another preacher this story is told: “Darius Dunham was a man most faithful in reproving sinners. Once a newly-made squire bantered with Dunham about riding so fine a horse. He remarked that it was so unlike his lowly Master, Christ, who rode on the back of an ass. Dunham replied with theological gravity and the measured tones of the pulpit that he would gladly ride on such a beast, but it was difficult to get one, the government having made them all into country squires!”
After the war of 1812, Rev. William Brown (later known as “Priest Brown”) became the presiding elder of the Rideau Circuit. Rev./Priest Brown was known for his fervent praying and it is preserved in church records that: His voice had great volume and his heart hot ardour.
With the building of the Rideau Canal the area began to see more activity. The first Methodist Chapel in Elgin was built in 1827, and became known as the “Old Meeting House” and as it was the only church building of the Methodists in a large area people attended it from miles around. In 1828, the Crosby Circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church (later known as the Elgin Circuit) reported 237 members. The circuit took in many points where worship was conducted by local preachers and exhorters: District No. 1 included Elgin, Topping’s and Coleman’s schools, District No. 2 included Dancys, California and Ripleys, No. 3 the Centre of Bastard, Chipman’s and Philipsville, No. 4 Stinsons, Plum Hollow and Sheldons, No. 5 Lansdowne and Beverley, No. 6 had Furnace Falls, Long Point, and Baptist Centre, and No. 7 had all above Newboro.
*A note in a minute book of the circuit at Elgin, dated 1872, indicates a motion by Rev. H. Williams, seconded by Isaac Alguire established a committee consisting of: Myles Lockwood, David Nichols, Isaac Dunham, Chester Haskin and George Brown, consider the practicality of of building a Methodist Episcopal Church at Philipsville. The result was a fine structure built on land donated by Delorma Philips. Indicative of the times, the sheds were erected first for protection of the horses. The building, 52 x 34 feet, with tower and spire reaching skyward 97 feet, was completed in 1874 at a cost of $6,000. The bell came from Troy, New York, USA. Circa 1960 the tower was struck by lightning and had to be taken down.
The church was dedicated January 29, 1874. The Philipsville Methodist-Episcopalian Church joined the United Church in 1925. Philipsville United was part of a three point Elgin-Portland-Philipsville Pastoral Charge. The Jubilee Year (60th Anniversary services were held October 21 and 22, 1934, led by Rev. David Gray and Rev. T. F. Townsend, pastor in charge. The 75th anniversary was celebrated in 1949, led by Rev. J. E. Glover, minister at the time. In August 1968, the church was closed by Kingston Presbytery, and Rev. J. Harry Seeley, minister at the time, continued to serve the now two point charge of Elgin-Portland. It is interesting to note that at the time of closure the average attendance was 35, plus a choir and a Sunday School, stronger than many that remain open today. In 1978 Philipsville United Church was sold to Harmony Masonic Lodge #370 for $501 ($500 for the hall and $1 for the church). In 1982 the congregation disposed of its assets, donating $1,050 to each of Portland and Elgin United and $561 to Harmony Masonic Lodge.
For many years worshippers in Portland gathered in a schoolhouse, believed to be in the location where the present church was built, and in fact the congregation took over the schoolhouse when a larger school was built in the community. When the congregation outgrew the school, the present building was constructed in 1890, to glowing reviews in the Brockville newspaper of the day. Unreported in the news media at the time was the scheme to raise money to pay for the church bell. An evening steamship cruise was held upon Big Rideau Lake, which would have been fine had the evening not been a Saturday. Scandal ensued when the Methodist revelers did not return to shore until the wee-hours of Sunday morning. While whispers and innuendo continued to murmur for many years about the mysterious bell-raising cruise, the resultant great bell rang each Sunday morning, summoning worshippers to the Portland Church. The centennial of the building of the current Portland United Church was celebrated in 1990, with former United Church Moderator, Dr. Bob McClure, in attendance.
In Elgin, the Wesleyan Methodists built a structure for worship in the mid 1800’s. (This building was converted into a private dwelling and still stands on Perth Street). With the union of the Canadian Methodists in 1884, the Wesleyan Methodists joined the Methodist Episcopalians who had been worshipping in a structure built in 1857 on the site of the current Elgin United Church.
Built on light sand, the structure soon became unsound. After twenty years, the Church Board decided that it was too expensive to repair, and that the church must come down to be replaced by a new one. At the funeral of Clarence Halladay in 1873, with many people in the gallery which was on three sides of the building, the walls began to creek and moan sending everyone outside to finish the service.
Debt on the parsonage delayed reconstruction until meetings began in earnest in June of 1893, and amazingly the current church structure was completed and enclosed in very short order. During centennial renovations to the building in 1994-95, the roofer’s signature was discovered, dated November 1893. The interior was ready for the grand opening in May, 1894, and in May 1994, the centennial of worship in the current Elgin United Church was celebrated with 4 ministers of the congregation (the Rev. B Adams, the Rev H. Seeley, the Rev. D McLean, and the Rev. N Clarke) and former Moderator, the Very Rev. Dr. Sang Chul Lee, in attendance.
Of course, accounts of days past barely scratch at the history of these two congregations. The balance is to be found in weekly worship, in council and board meetings, in men’s groups, youth groups, bible study, Choir rehearsals and performances, in Sunday Schools, in baptisms and weddings and funerals and in millions of hymns sung, prayers offered, hopes hoped, and good deeds done over nearly 200 years. These two churches are busy every day, with congregational and community activities. The congregations support over the years has included day care for toddlers, aerobics classes, arts and crafts, music lessons for all ages, Weight Watchers, Girl Guides, and a host of others. The churches host many musical concerts and events during the year. Dinners, lunches and teas are of regularly enjoyed by the communities.
As well as continuing to support the Mission and Service Fund and other United Church projects, congregation members generously support local food banks, the Dental Issues Group and the Community Clothing Cooperative, an outreach project launched in 1996 making good quality used clothing available to those in need or those in need of a good bargain. The churches continue to run Sunday Schools, regular Bible Studies (in particular Venturing in Biblical Education, VIBE) and between the two congregations, about 50 people of all ages are involved weekly in making music, either singing or playing in two thriving choirs and a hand bell group in Portland. The Portland UCW group continues to meet for study and fellowship, and continue to support many very worthy projects in the local area and beyond. The Elgin UCW having determined to cease meeting due to an aging and declining membership pool. Both churches have updated their sanctuaries with sound systems, handicapped access, repaired and replaced stained glass windows and heating and ventilation equipment.
The past and the present are only part of the story of these congregations. Indeed, the bulk of stories of these two congregations are as yet untold, and unlived. The next chapters will be written by different hands, told by different voices – by the hands and voices of our children’s children. The only thing we can know about their world is what we know about ours. It’s a world that will need (as it needs now) the unique, saving, converting and healing truth of Jesus Christ spoken, sung, rung, danced, celebrated and prayed for, just as it did when early Methodist settlers began to worship here nearly 200 years ago. We know that we may fail, at times, in being completely faithful, in being welcoming, in encouraging others in the faith. We may even, at times, turn people away. But that does not diminish the fact that God has a purpose in mind for The United Church of Canada in Elgin and Portland, a purpose that God will accomplish in, through, and maybe even in spite of these wonderful congregations. God has used, and will continue to use, these two churches in North Leeds, to help the world know that the Kingdom of God’s Peace has come among us in the Crucified and Risen One, Jesus Christ.
Edited from the writing of the Rev. Don McLean, with reference to historical files and records.
*Philipsville information provided by Rev. J. Harry Seeley and from files of Clela Haskin with permission of Jan & Bruce Haskin.
Elgin United Church – the Building
Current building constructed 1894
Methodist Episcopalians worshipped in the original church structure built in 1857, on land donated by Ebenezer Halladay, who in conjunction with his brother Henry, was the driving force behind the establishment of Elgin, originally known as Halladay’s Corners.
History records that “there was the most splendid devotion and sacrifice put into the building of the Church, but not enough worldly wisdom in choosing the foundation. The undertaking was delayed, though, by debts on the parsonage until the crisis came in a rather dramatic way. In 1893, a young man named Clarence Halladay was helping some men build a barn. He was talking rather wildly, using language the men didn’t like, so they said, “Aren’t you afraid to talk like that?” “No,” he replied, “I’m not going to die until hell is frozen over and the little devils are skating on the ice.”
Before the day was over, however, a beam fell on him and killed him. Little wonder then, that a very large and curious crowd attended the funeral. During the service, with many people in the gallery, which was on three sides, the church began to creek and groan. The people were terrified and fled for their lives. Some thought the corpse was going to rise out of the casket. Little wonder that a meeting was hastily called to consider the building of a new Church.”
Construction of the present building began in 1893 on the same site as the previous structure, and was finished in May 1894, under the supervision of local mason Fred Tabor of Morton. Labour was mostly supplied by volunteers, and much of the original sandstone and limestone was used in construction with the remaining requirement being quarried from the farm of Henry Halladay.
Possibly depicting the early diverse influences of this settlement, there is no specific, discernible architectural style, but rather a pleasing blend of Roman, Greek and Old English which offers the suggestion that the structure was constructed to the glory of God, more-so than the pleasure of man.
The entire main body of the church is adorned with massive stained-glass windows, the work of Frank Reynolds of Westport, and three memorial dedication stained-glass windows grace the sanctuary alcove. The pews are of Canadian birch, and although original have been upholstered since installation.
The exterior of the building is unique in that it is neither square nor rectangular, but rather embraces a semi-circular footprint on both the North-East and South-West sides of the building. A characteristic which is also found in the inside lay-out. Twin spires adorn the North and West corners, the lesser spire to the North, and the greater to the West, housing the church bell. From its location in the centre dormer, a large arched stained glass window perfectly replicates the main entry archway directly below.
In 1959, under the leadership of Rev. J. Harry Seeley who served from 1953-1955 as a student and from 1957-1991 as Minister, a basement was dug beneath the church. Canada Centennial 1967 saw the addition of a wing on the East-South-East side of the main building. These enhancements provide a kitchen, meeting rooms, furnace room, offices, and a community nursery centre. The ensuing years have seen a new roof, new furnaces, new insulation, re-pointed stonework, and repainted exterior woodwork to ensure the building is in good shape for future use. A Yamaha piano was acquired in the early 90’s through congregant donations. The 1981 Hammond Organ was restored in 2002. In 2008 a Julianna Grand Piano was donated anonymously and a Yamaha keyboard was purchased with Memorial Funds.
An accessible washroom and entry ramp welcome all and are complimented by a designated wheelchair seating area in the sanctuary. Health matters are well addressed by the drilling of a well in 2003 and the installation of an ultraviolet water-treatment system. In 2013 both the Centennial and Fellowship Rooms were rejuvenated with contemporary furnishings, electric fireplace and flat screen TV which effectively adds to the comfort and ambiance of these well used meeting spaces. The spring of 2015 completed the repair of the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the sanctuary.
A state-of-the-art sound/video system enhances the quality and tone of both message and music, and in conjunction with the theatre quality acoustics of the sanctuary makes this a favoured venue for amateur and professional musicians alike.
Projects for future consideration include new carpet for the sanctuary, a new organ, renovating the kitchen, new septic system and fixing the bell.
Elgin United Church is a heritage building, listed in the National Registry of Canada.
Elgin United is a welcoming and well used place for the wider community, whose support and activities span the gambit from meeting space to the local Nursery School and countless events and functions in between.
Under the present guidance of Rev. Takouhi Demirdjian-Petro, B.A., B.Th.., M.Div., Elgin United continues to be a vibrant and community minded congregation.
Historical Highlights Portland United Church
The Portland United Church has roots that go back to the early saddleback preachers who held services in forest glens, barns and cabins periodically as they travelled the circuit in the 1800s. This evolved to services held in a log school. Then in 1874, a stone school house was purchased to become the first Methodist Church in Portland. The present brick structure was erected on that same site, using the stone from the school for its foundations. The cornerstone date is 1890 though newspaper clippings give the first services in the new brick building as the first Sunday in Jan. 1892. The basement of the church had been dedicated for church use in 1891 and that is where the services were held until the whole building was completed. The basement was also used for services during the winter in later decades before central heating would serve the upper level.
The heating of the church has gone through many renewals. The first a brick furnace was replaced with a wood burning, pipe-less furnace which was followed in 1961 with an oil furnace and still later an electric furnace. In 2012 the system was again updated, this time using a thermo-air-to-air system which will provide heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.
The lighting of the church has also progressed from kerosene lamps, through acetylene gas to gasoline lamps and then electricity. This is still in progress with fluorescent and LED lights giving brighter more efficient illumination; ditto for the sound system and various organs.
In 1925, along with other Methodist churches in Canada, the Portland church became part of the United Church of Canada.
In 1977 an addition to the church provided space for the Friendship Room, office, choir room and washrooms. Further changes have created an accessible washroom and a lift, making the lower level available to all.
In the 1980s stained glass windows with pictorial scenes were added to the much older fresco adorning the front of the sanctuary. Presently we are in the process of restoring century old stained glass, from the now closed Queen Street United Church in Kingston. Two of these panels have been installed in the Colborne Street end of the sanctuary.
Today we enjoy a dedicated, enthusiastic choir, which is accompanied by a Heintzman Studio Grand Piano or “Classic” organ, an active U.C.W., a energetic Sunday School, a vibrant visitation committee, and a welcoming and friendly congregation.