The following article was published in "Quebec Heritage News" in the summer 2012 edition.
Chelsea's Union Mission Church Park
by Carol Martin
On October 2, 2011, Chelsea's mayor, members of Chelsea's municipal Culture and Heritage Committee, the Gatineau Valley Historical Society and former trustees of the Union Mission Church gathered with representatives of the local Anglican and United Churches, neighbours and former parishioners to celebrate the Union Mission Church Park. The event marked a culmination of efforts to find a way to use and commemorate a historic community church in Kirk's Ferry, a hamlet in this Western Quebec municipality situated in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa. It was the result of very positive cooperation between municipal officials and community groups, and a reflection of some of the ideas inherent in cultural heritage.
My well-used, familiar Co-unionncise Oxford Dictionary defines heritage in qualified terms, as what is or may be inherited, while cultural heritage, according to Wikipedia, is a legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group of society. As I reflected on these concepts, and how they applied to the community project I'm about to describe, I was struck by the notion of heritage as something that may be inherited, and the potential negative, that something may NOT be inherited - and in the second case, by the importance of physical artifacts related to intangible attributes in our cultural heritage.
For 75 years, until 2003, the Union Mission Church was a landmark on this site, but its history goes back more than a century, to 1898, when the first church was built on nearby land, now flooded by the Gatineau River. On July 13, 1898, a group of subscribers to the "Church Building Fund" recorded their first official meeting to oversee construction of a building and passed a resolution providing for its shared use among different Protestant denominations. A local farmer donated the land where it was built, but most of the subscribers were summer cottagers attracted to the scenic Gatineau area that had become more easily accessible since construction of a railroad from Ottawa. The project must have proceeded quickly, as a framed notice indicates that it was opened for Divine Service on the first day of August 1898. Once built, year-round residents as well as the summer tourists attended church services there, and during the week it served as the local elementary school. On Friday afternoons the children pushed their desks to the back and set up chairs in rows, ready for church on Sunday.
Times changed. In 1927, a massive hydroelectric project on the Gatineau River raised the water level and flooded the main street and much of the original village of Kirk's Ferry, including the church. The ferry crossing was no more, although the village kept its familiar name. Some buildings were moved, others simply torn down. New roads, a new store and post office were built, and the railroad line moved to higher ground with a new passenger station and baggage depot. The church also found a new site, donated by one of its trustees, A. Ferguson Brown, on a 100-foot square lot at 16 Brown Road. The former building was not moved, but the Gatineau Power Company paid for a fine new church faced with white clapboard, roofed with green shingles and crowned with a small steeple. The new church functioned only in the summer, with services alternating between Anglican and United Church, but it was a place that brought together the year-round residents and vacationing cottagers. My childhood memories of summers spent at a Kirk's Ferry cottage include Sunday services when my great-aunt Maud Brown was one of the occasional organists, as was the renowned Dr. J. W. Bearder, an eminent organist and composer based at Ottawa's All Saints and St Matthew's Churches from 1913-1950. In 1958, my fiancé Bob got a summer job in Ottawa, rented a cottage at Kirk's Ferry next door to the church, and also played the organ there. When we moved back as young marrieds in 1959, we attended the church and he continued to play the organ, an old pump-harmonium (now saved for the Fairbairn House at La Pêche). I had a strong family connection with the church. My parents' lovely garden at Kirk's Ferry provided flowers for a tall metal vase enclosed in a wicker stand that stood in front of the lectern each week. My grandfather and great-uncle served as trustees over the years. My parents, with my two brothers and me in tow, would stop to chat with neighbours, outdoors in the churchyard after the service.
But times continued to change. In 1974, Marion G. Rogers wrote in the Ottawa Journal of the voluntary work including cleaning, grass cutting, and organ playing that kept the little church open for ten services a summer. What Miss Rogers did not mention was that some costs, such as electrical service (temporarily supplied by a neighbour's extension cord from his house to lights for the organist and preacher) were now more than the dwindling congregation could support. Permanent homes increasingly filled the available land in Kirk's Ferry, and enterprising souls were converting the old summer cottages to year-round dwellings. Most of the residents commuted to work in Ottawa-Gatineau, and it was easy to drive to a church in Chelsea or further afield. Finally, in 1979, the last regular weekly summer services were held, although the church was reopened on June 30, 1990, for a memorial service for my mother, Dorothy Reid Craig. By this time I was one of the remaining trustees of the church, along with Harold Reid. We formed a Union Mission Church Committee under the aegis of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society, transferred the remaining funds from the church to a special account within the Society, and approached municipal officials, who were sympathetic but had no solutions to suggest.
The Union Mission Church was still a lovely landmark, a picturesque building with pine trees framing its borders. We knew that the best way to save a heritage structure was to find a use for it, and we applied our imaginations to think of new purposes. It was a discouraging task. Building regulations had also changed over time, and its lot size and lack of existing water and septic systems precluded converting the church building for housing or commercial use if it remained on that site. Estimated costs for moving it were high, and no potential user came forward.
Buildings age, and, like people, develop infirmities. In this case, a very heavy spring snowfall in 2002 was simply too much for the roof, and part of it caved in. The trustees were served with an order to demolish the building or undertake repairs to make it safe. Over the following summer, with new energy, we mobilized neighbours and historical society volunteers to form a work crew that removed interior furnishings and dismantled the exterior. The steeple, pews, windows and some of the lumber were salvaged and stored in a neighbouring barn, while the intact entrance section was moved to a municipal storage site. Then, over the next few years, we developed a plan for a small chapel made of the salvaged entry and steeple. A local architect, Alan Hopkins, drew plans for it, while we tried to interest Chelsea's Protestant churches and explored potential municipally-owned sites. During this time, the "saved" entrance section was accidentally demolished. We were fortunate to have stored the rest of the saved materials in a sturdy, heritage barn, but its owner - and we - were losing faith in our ability to develop a successful plan.
A few more years passed. Then, in 2005, Chelsea formed a Cultural and Heritage Committee. Its membership included a municipal Councillor and the Director of Recreation and Cultural Services, along with members from local arts, cultural and heritage groups. It was the larger scope and interests of this new committee that provided a "eureka moment," that refocused our ideas beyond the building (or what, by now, was left of it) and back to the site. The result was a proposal for a park, where the steeple would be erected as a historic artifact, with interpretive panels telling the history of the church. In January 2008, the Municipality signed an entente with Quebec's Ministère de la Culture, des Communications, et de la Condition féminine (MCCCF), for several jointly-funded heritage projects, to be realized over a three-year period. One of these ("Mise en valeur de l'emplacement et du rôle historique de l'Eglise Union Mission") was to valorize the site and historic role of the Union Mission Church.
With a year's extension to the entente, the project finally came together by the end of summer in 2011. The original steeple, refurbished and painted, was mounted on a raised cement base. (By then, the barn where we'd stored it needed roof repair, and we had moved it several kilometres to a different barn, before municipal staff took it to their shops and delivered it back to the site on Brown Road.) We located historic photos for the interpretation panels and wrote the text for them. Two benches invite visitors to sit, and plans for 2012 include further site clearing and landscaping. As our brief ceremony in October of last year drew to a close, a light rain began to fall, and the small crowd dispersed.
For a long time, the Union Mission Church heritage project seemed destined to be a failure. The adapted project preserved only a small artifact from the building, but it does exhibit it in situ, and the visitor can see photographs and read something of the original church. Some of the windows, lumber, and a number of pews were sold at the Gatineau Valley Historical Society annual auction and will provide further funds for beautification to the site. Two pews from the former church have also been conserved (in another barn, of course) for potential future use in Chelsea's public buildings. The conserved steeple and the interpretation panels there now convey some of the history of both the original church and the one that stood on this site for nearly three-quarters of a century.
Chelsea's Union Mission Church Park is truly an example of heritage that might not have been inherited. I am so happy that we found a way to preserve this part of Chelsea's cultural heritage, and grateful for all the support and assistance that made it happen. For further information about this church, see "Kirk's Ferry's Union Mission Church and Other Shared Protestant Churches in Chelsea" by Carol Martin in Up the Gatineau!, Volume 25 (published in 1999 by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society).