Rockingham – It was a bit over two decades ago a monumental task was completed in restoring the old rotting St. Leonard’s Anglican Church and at the anniversary celebrations on Sunday afternoon, special tribute was paid to the log builder who took on the task.
Well-known area log builder Rob van Vliet died this winter from glioblastoma, and his legacy as an integral part of the restoration of the Rockingham Church was commemorated, celebrated and marked.
“Rob was important – you could say essential – to the fact that the church we’re in still stands to this day,” Peggy Bridgland, a founding member of the Friends of Rockingham Church, said. “He was here at the beginning and cared about it to the end.”
The 20th anniversary celebrations were scheduled for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that. With more freedom to have gatherings in 2022, this year the special anniversary was held of the restoration which was completed over two decades ago. The church is small, but the pews were filled and an overflow crowd gathered outside. With the area in the midst of a heat wave, the dark interior was warm, but a good breeze would go through the windows strategically placed along the walls.
There was music, with special singing provided by the Platt family of Joe, Teresa and Raphaela who hail from the nearby Wilno hills. As well, hymns were sung with the congregation filling the church with music and the 23rd Psalm read in a building which was erected for worship almost 150 years ago.
The Rockingham Church, sitting high on a hill in Rockingham, where local historians believe there must have been another road for parishioners to congregate there in the 1870s and beyond, was built when the hamlet was a thriving community. Rockingham had been founded in 1858. By the late 1800s, there were 110 people living in the community. Later, when the pine was all logged off, people moved to other settlements and eventually the church also found its congregation had dwindled to the point where no more regular services were held after 1924. The pews, bell and font were removed in the 1940s and the building secularized in the 1960s. Then it slowly began to fall into disrepair.
The first attempts at restoration were in the 1970s when volunteers with the Madawaska Association for Development Ecology (MADE) did some work including repairing the back wall and roof, as well as arranging for the return of the pews.
Ms. Bridgland recalled Mr. van Vliet was one of those who worked to repair the church then.
“He was one of the many folk who answered the call of Barney McCaffery and volunteered their Sunday afternoons to working on this poor sagging old building,” she said. “We were all young back then, starting out here, building houses or fixing up old ones, having our kids, figuring out how we could live – ‘pioneering’ as we liked to think. Many young people had moved to the area, and there were many gatherings of families, kids’ birthday parties, work bees, and group ventures. Saving the church was one.”
Decades later in the 1990s, when the church was in danger of demolition by the Anglican Diocese who still owned it, the community rallied to save it, she recalled.
“Rob and I became part of a committee working to get title, raise funds, and somehow get on with really fixing it,” she said. “That committee became the Friends of the Rockingham Church.”
Eventually, Mr. van Vliet was hired for the restoration work.
“No one else would take it on,” she said. “Rob never doubted that the church could be saved. Even when he and his crew opened up each wall and exposed the true extent of the decay.”
A picture of those rotting walls was placed at the front of the church so those present could understand the tremendous task undertaken. Ms. Bridgland said he found ways to repair, reinforce or replace the rotten structure, managing to keep the look of the church intact and the feeling of it timeless and serene.
“It was a lucky day for the Rockingham Church when Rob passed by one winter afternoon in 1973 and fell in love with it,” she noted. “And it’s lucky for all of us that he did. For here we are today.”
At the anniversary celebrations a plaque was dedicated marking his contributions to the church and his legacy continued on as his daughter Jada van Vliet and granddaughter Juniper Fallon rang the bell signaling the beginning and ending of the service.
Searching For History
Each anniversary celebration there is a guest speaker. This year, Barry Conway, who has had an extensive journalism career, including teaching journalism and more recently is known locally for writing some freelance articles for the Eganville Leader, spoke about the search for history, as well as his own personal connection to the church. “Bread and buttered” in Barry’s Bay, he grew up nearby and was familiar with the old church as a teen.
“I’ve been coming to Rockingham, if memory serves me well, since one hot, sweltering day in June, 1969, when Barney McCaffery dropped me off just down there at the crossroads from his old Methane-fired jalopy,” he recalled.
The idea was to wait for the crew from MADE to show up and they would all work on the Rockingham Creek cleaning up old, rusted car parts, fenders and rubber tires.
“My job was to take the before and after photographs of MADE’s clean-up effort,” he said. “As a budding journalist, I wasn’t expected to actually roll up my sleeves, wade through the creek or pick up any of the litter. Rather, I was there as a true professional.”
The story turned out a bit differently though.
“Nobody arrived, so eventually, I went down to the creek, took the before shot, worked the whole afternoon cleaning up as much as I could, then took the after shot,” he said.
His journalism career later took him to the Kingston Whig Standard, the CBC and at one point he was in California. With the advent of the internet, about 10 years ago he decided to do a search on Rockingham to see what new information he could find.
“So, I fired up my laptop at three o’clock in the morning,” he said. “Who can sleep when news about St. Leonard’s might be coming over the news wire at any moment? So, I Google ‘Rockingham’.”
Thousands of hits came up and narrowing the search was a bit of trial and error, he said. Using Boolean Logic, the idea is to add words like “and, not, or” and quotation marks, parentheses marks and an asterisk and the search is more specific.
Eventually he typed in Opeongo Road as well, and then he tried dates, beginning with 1867.
“That wildcard works like magic,” he said. “Before I know it, I was printing off a document published in 1864 by the Wesleyan Methodists Missionary Association in London, England.”
The report told of a January 1863 prayer meeting in Rockingham, “in a building close by a small grist mill.”
He said using the Boolean Logic, as well as some Madawaska Valley common sense, he is able to research stories, including background for his Opeongo Line podcast.
“Before I go, a couple of things worth remembering,” he said. “Life is essentially about small, sometimes insignificant moments. Great Internet searches are really about paying attention to those moments, those minuscule details.”
Mr. Conway also presented a handout with information on the 10 best search engines and the top online portals for local historians. Some of the free portals for historians include Google Advance Search, Internet Archive and Ancestry.ca.
The Friends of the Rockingham Church continue to need donations to continue the upkeep work on the old church. It is a registered not-for-profit charity. More information can be found at www.rockinghamchurch.org.