Matawatchan — It is with great sadness that we announce the death of St. Andrew’s U.C. (United Church) in Matawatchan on Sunday, October 3, 2021, due to a dwindling of congregation. Interment or demolition to be followed at a later date.

Leaving to mourn its loss are many family members such as MacPhersons, Kellys, Thomsons, Parks, Peters, Wards, Wilsons, Warrens, Wagners, Hollerans, Strongs, Carswells, McLarens and many more.

That was a message sent out to congregation members last fall and since then the remaining members have decided to close the church, list the building and 10-acre property for sale and amalgamate with St. Luke’s United Church in nearby Denbigh. Denbigh, Matawatchan and Emmanuel United Church at Schutt were part of a three-point charge. The property is listed at $325,00 and most of the proceeds will go to help sustain the remaining churches in Denbigh and Schutt.

The final service at Matawatchan United Church was held this past Sunday, July 17 conducted by Jon Williams, a semi-retired minister who also presides over services in Denbigh and Schutt two Sundays each month.

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A national heritage group warns that an estimated 9,000 churches will close in Canada in the next decade. As church attendance drops and building costs rise, congregations across Canada face the gut-wrenching dilemma of whether to sell, demolish or repurpose their old churches. The loss of that many churches represents about one-third of all faith-owned buildings in the country.

Every community in the country is going to see old church buildings shuttered, sold off or torn down, according to National Trust for Canada regeneration project leader Robert Pajot.

“Neighbourhoods are going to have multiple churches closing,” he said in an interview with senior CBC news reporter Bonnie Allen in Saskatchewan recently. “Some people qualify this as a crisis, and I kind of agree. It’s going to hit everybody.”

Besides the loss of beautiful historical buildings, also disappearing will be the sense of community provided by worship spaces. Churches have not just been for Sunday services, but for Girl Guides, AA meetings, political meetings, weddings and funerals, piano lessons and programs for seniors and the homeless.

In rural areas, congregations are shrinking as members age or move away. In cities, the increasing secularization of society coupled with new spiritual practices has cut into traditional Christian church attendance, Ms. Allen writes.

With fewer people in the pews, and less money in the coffers, rising maintenance costs on older buildings have overwhelmed many congregations.

While several churches in Renfrew County have been closed and sold, there are others like St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on the Opeongo at Esmonde that sit idle with no immediate plans. Contrast that to St. James Lutheran Church in Renfrew that was sold last year. The congregation is now using the local United Church for its services while their former church was demolished to make way for new housing.

The Catholic Church in Griffith was closed several years ago and about three years ago the building was sold and relocated to another property.

Now, the United Church in Matawatchan, about 15 kms away, is closed and listed for sale with a Renfrew real estate firm.

In a recent interview with congregation members Carol Anne Kelly and Judy MacPherson, they shared their thoughts and feelings on losing a church that had served the tiny community since 1884. Mrs. Kelly noted, however, as early as 1879 a picnic was held to start raising funds to build a place of worship.

“They came up from Plevna,” she said. “Now that would have been a major trip back then.”

A circuit rider came on horse back to do a Sunday service,” Mrs. MacPherson added.

The church picnics continued for over a century, ending in the 1990s.

When the first church was built and dedicated in 1884, it was aligned with the Presbyterian Church and remained as such until the Presbyterian and Methodist churches united and were later joined by the United Brethren. It became officially known as Matawatchan United Church in 1925.

Over the years, the membership has dwindled – drastically, Mrs. Kelly said. Coming near its end, attendance most Sundays was down to 10 or 12 from 30 to 40. In fact, there was a time when there were more members in the choir than in the pews.

“We had an active Sunday School with maybe two classes, sometimes three depending on the numbers,” she recalled from earlier years. “We even had a junior choir.”

A combination of young people leaving the area and seniors dying off are the main reasons for the dwindling numbers.

“There is nothing here for young people as far as making a living and so they moved out and we lost them,” Mrs. Kelly said. “They come back to visit once in awhile.”

“Plus, I think young people aren’t interested in church,” Mrs. MacPherson added. “Even the young people that are here now aren’t. And I think that is a problem all over.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also played a role in the closure. With the church closed for about two years due to COVID, mould developed in the basement and that was another reason the decision was made to close it.

“When COVID started we weren’t in the church that much and water seeped into the basement and it wasn’t detected right away and when it was, the tile had lifted and it had seeped into the drywall,” Mrs. MacPherson said.

About $20,000 has been spent on repairing the damage and correcting drainage problems around the exterior of the building.

 The daughter of Arthur and Audrey Ward, who were very active in the church, Mrs. Kelly has many fond memories of the little church where people gathered for more than 100 years to practice their faith. Watching as this chapter in its history unfolds isn’t easy for her but she has a treasure chest of many fond memories.

“I’ve been here since I was married in ’65 and before that for all my life,” Mrs. Kelly shared. “I worshipped in the old log building as a kid; sat out here under a big tree for Sunday School.

“It’s hard, and I am so thankful that some of our senior members are not here to be with us and see this because it would be so much harder for them.”

Mrs. Kelly said the closing hasn’t really hit her yet, but she expected Sunday’s final service would be an emotional time for her.

However, she was quick to point out how the congregation at Denbigh has accepted the former Matawatchan members and how much she enjoys worshipping there. And thanks to the new members from Matawatchan, the United Church Women’s group in Denbigh has been revived and will become active once again with, perhaps, as many 15 members.

Ironically, Mrs. MacPherson grew up in Denbigh and attended St. Luke’s, so she is returning to her roots to worship. She and her husband, Joe were the first couple to be married in the present-day Matawatchan church in August, 1969.

“It had been built in ’60 but there were no weddings until that time,” she said.

In his book, Matawatchan United Church – the first 100 years, author Elmer Strong quotes from the Canada Presbyterian, dated Feb. 25, 1885:

“The mission station of Matawatchan and Griffith is situated in the County of Renfrew, 100 miles almost due north of the city of Kingston. The ground is rough and abounds with rocky hills that render the country but little suitable for agricultural purposes. The majority of the inhabitants were attracted thither at first by the lumber interest and remained there after the lumberers had gone further up on the Ottawa. The settlers are hard working and manage only by industry and care to make a comfortable living.

Under the care of the Presbyterian Church, there are 30 families in Matawatchan and five in Griffith. The out-of-the way but interesting field has been under the charge of the Missionary Association of Queen’s College for a number of years. For two years past Mr. R. Whiteman, a student in Arts, has been the missionary. Until the close of the past summer, services had always been held in two schoolhouses in Matawatchan. The schoolhouse was unable to accommodate the congregation, which usually numbered between 80 and 100. The framework of a church was raised about four years ago, but the work was discontinued because of a lack of funds.

In the summer of 1883 Mr. Whiteman took in hand the work of raising subscriptions and collected $250. In addition to this, in the same year, arrangements were made to obtain the material. This was got at Deseronto and looked after by the Rev. W.T. Wilkins of Trenton who took an active interest in the affairs of Matawatchan and himself collected enough money to seat the church.

The early summer of 1884 was spent in getting together the material, which had to be drawn 35 miles from Levant, a station on the Kingston and Pembroke Railroad. Work was renewed about the beginning of August and the church was completed by the 12th of October.”

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For more than 100 years, Matawatchan was famous for its annual church picnic. In a letter to the editor of the Renfrew Mercury July 14, 1899, the following account is given of the picnic held that year:

“The annual picnic of the Presbyterian church in Matawatchan took place on Wednesday, July the 5th. The weather up to the day of the picnic was very unfavourable, as there had been on previous days copious showers of rain, and the roads were consequently not in very good condition.

Even on the morning of the picnic the clouds began to weep and betoken a wet day, but the glorious orb soon appeared and wiped away the tears, and so the day remained fine until toward the evening.

Despite the conditions of the roads, a goodly crowd arrived on bicycles and in rigs. The forenoon was spent mainly in social conversation, renewing old acquaintances and calling up pleasant reminiscences. Everybody appeared to enjoy themselves thoroughly. The swings erected on the grounds were well patronized. About two o’clock in the afternoon the people seated themselves to listen to a lengthy and well-prepared program, consisting of speeches, recitations and singing. Very effective and inspiring speeches were delivered by Rev. Mr. Turkington of Matawatchan, Rev. Mr. Green of Ompah, and Rev. Mr. McCallum, B.A., of Levant. After the program was disposed of, attention was turned to the sports, which consisted of racing, jumping, tug-of-war, etc. Before those amusements were completed, the rain scattered the crowd. The day had been very hot and sultry and about five o’clock dark clouds began to accumulate in the west, the thunder began to roll, and soon a terrible storm of rain and hail burst forth on the happy picnickers. Everyone sought a place of refuge, but ere this could be effected many were thoroughly drenched as the rain came down in sheets. Hail of extraordinary size fell and did a great deal of damage. The glass in the windows exposed to the storm was smashed to pieces, and agricultural crops, especially the peas, were seriously injured. Luckily, the hailstones prevailed over a small section only.

In the evening when returning home, several runaways took place. Some of the occupants were thrown from the rigs and received a severe shaking up, but no fatalities occurred.

It would be unfair to conclude without reference to the ladies. They are to be highly commended for their work in preparing the meals, which for excellence would be very difficult to equal and impossible to surpass. And as it is only when the wants of the inward man are fully satisfied that the outward man can truly enjoy himself, the success of the picnic should largely be attributed to the ladies. From a financial standpoint, the picnic was also a success, for although the receipts were somewhat lower than previous years, yet the result is that the treasury is swelled by something over forty dollars.

Another very pleasant event might appropriately be mentioned here. On the evening of the picnic a marriage ceremony was to have been performed but owing to some of the relatives of the bride having been injured in the runaways mentioned above, it was thought expedient to postpone the marriage until the following day.”

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Matawatchan’ s long involvement with the logging industry and the associated culinary art of the camboose shanties produced many excellent male cooks in the community and so the Matawatchan picnic became widely known and acclaimed for its shanty-style cooked meals and this reputation continued to attract not only several generations of local people but also many from outside the community. The tradition of sand-baked beans was established which was to be the dominant feature of Matawatchan picnics for nearly a century.

From its earliest days, speeches were an integral part of the afternoon’s entertainment. In the beginning the speakers were mostly local clergymen and maybe the township reeve. In later years politicians played a more prominent role. Candidates from both the provincial and federal parties were invited to address the crowds which they were only too happy to do. Each tried to outdo the other in promising untold prosperity for the community if they were elected at the next election.

“It seemed they were always on the verge of announcing a major project to bring the railroad to the area or a major highway, a new mineral mines, or some other construction project that would provide jobs ands wealth to the local people,” Mr. Strong wrote in his book. “It did not matter that none of these promises ever materialized or that there was no sound economic basis on which they could ever happen. However, the mood was light at these gatherings, and the local community leaders enjoyed the lighthearted bantering and being seen by the others in the company of these dignitaries.”

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And so, the little church that brought a community of faithful together for nearly 140 years and was the focal point for spiritual and social activities, has now seen its doors closed for the last time. For the few remaining families of a once-bustling community, the decision to close was a difficult and emotional chapter in their lives, yet one they were left with no choice but to make. It is not without irony their closure has given some new life to a neighbouring parish in Denbigh, where a community of the faithful still gathers to worship and to be a community together.