Regular "Voices from Lambton's Past" author Bob McCarthy has graciously stepped aside this week in order that we may bring you this special contribution by Sarnia writer Phyllis Humby.
“Pop and I planted this garden the spring after our wedding. It was his idea that we be married here after he learned that this was the site of a church many years ago.”
“How did he know about the church, Grandma?”
The gray haired woman took another swallow of the still warm brew and began to relate the story as she remembered it.
“Each year during the dry season, your pop would puzzle over the perfect rectangular shape that would appear in the front yard. The grass in that spot would dry out quicker than any other area. A neighbour told him about the church. Imagine, Sophie, there used to be a church right here. Well, Pop got his shovel and dug into the hard dirt. He struck something solid about twelve inches below ground level.”
Sophie leaned over the wide wooden arm of her chair, her hot chocolate forgotten as she listened to her grandmother’s words.
“He brushed away pebbles of dirt and felt a surface as smooth as marble.” She smiled, remembering the touch of the cool concrete against the tips of her fingers.
“The church was here a long time ago, Grandma?”
“Yes, it was right here more than a hundred years before Pop and I were born. It was a landmark on the Sixth Line of Plympton for over one hundred and eighteen years,” she emphasized, not sure if the five-year-old understood the time span of one hundred years.
She inhaled the pungent smells of autumn and launched into the history of Epworth United Church, a story that the grandchildren referred to as the Legend of Hallowed Ground.
“A woman by the name of Mary Sherman settled here in 1836. Of course, it was Crown Land then. Fourteen years later, she sold a small piece of the property to the Yorkville congregation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. It had a frontage of about sixty-nine feet and ran back about fifty-two feet. Just large enough for a small structure. I’m not sure if they built the open church shed at that time, but it was there in later pictures we found during our research.”
She shifted in her chair and addressed the child. “You see Sophie; the people that attended services in those days came by horse drawn carriage. The open shed was a shelter for the teams of horses during the Sunday service. There were no cars then, you know.”
The young one nodded her head solemnly waiting for her grandmother to continue the story.
“Within twenty years, they knew they needed a bigger church. They had a congregation of a hundred or so by then.”
“They made another church?” the child questioned.
“Well, first they had to raise the money. That took some time.” She paused, collecting her thoughts, and continued. “The church changed names several times over the years. When the Maxwell family owned the farmland, it was simply referred to as the Maxwell Church. There were many denominations in those days and it was not until 1876 that The Primitive Methodist, The Methodist Episcopal, The Wesleyan Methodist−the denomination of this church−, and The Bible Christian churches became one: The Methodist Church of Canada.”
“What does that mean, Grandma?”
“Well, dear, it means that the same minister would now serve several of the smaller churches in this area. They decided it made good sense to have one larger church instead of several small ones and so they closed some of them.”
“And all the people came here?”
She was pleased that her youngest grandchild was following the story.
“At the turn of the century, they had raised enough money to erect a new building. The pastor, Rev. Brown, was determined to carry out the plans to replace the deteriorating wooden structure with a white brick building.
“I daresay they were glad to have a brick building when lightning struck in 1911. Yes, this property seems prone to lightening strikes. Four that we know of. The church being the first known strike.”
She digressed from the saga to tell her granddaughter that lightening struck a huge old hickory tree directly in front of the house. One of Pop’s first chores was to cut down the dead tree.
“Now, that was a very big job, Sophie. Several men came with chainsaws and trailers to haul away the wood. Then Pop burned the stump out of the ground.” The older woman chuckled, adding. “I will let Pop tell you that story.”
“A lightning bolt disabled a large satellite dish on the property and years later, another lightning strike took out our phone line.” She wrinkled her nose at a sip of icy tea, and continued the tale.
“In 1903 Rev. Eccles of London laid the main cornerstone for the Epworth Methodist church.”
“Was that the church’s name?”
“Yes, dear, it didn’t become the Epworth United Church until several years later, 1925 to be exact. A few members of the Presbyterian Church joined the Methodist denomination, and at that time, the church became the Epworth United.”
The child began to fidget. Her grandmother rose from her chair. She took a few steps forward into the garden and onto the springy softness of the wood chip surface.
“Your grandfather and I decided to dedicate a garden to the church the spring following our wedding. We knew we could not plant trees in this space because of the old concrete foundation but after several truckloads of garden soil, we had an additional eighteen inches of dirt. Enough for shrubs. Pop and I planted a border of trees: cedar, spruce, and fir. We then planted perennials within the garden, along with willowy grasses, and all these shrubs you see.”
She pointed to each bush animatedly rhyming off the names; forsythia, burning bush, ninebark diablo, Japanese snowball, globe cedars, purpleleaf sandcherry, rose of sharon…. For Sophie’s benefit, her voice faded into exaggerated breathlessness.
Sobering, she concluded, “It must have been a sad day when they closed the church for good and auctioned the contents.” Sophie traced her grandmother’s footsteps out of the garden.
“In the summer of 1968, they sold everything right down to the kitchen utensils. Well, they even advertised the building for auction on the condition that it be hauled away.” The woman’s brows peaked as though wondering what became of the building.
“If the church was gone, Grandma, how did you and Pop get married here?”
Grandma took her hand, collected their mugs, and together they walked towards the house.
“We rented a huge white tent and placed it right where the church once stood. Our minister, Reverend Tucker, was delighted when we asked that he marry us here. He was even more delighted to learn that it was the site of a United church. He spoke of the history of Epworth United during the ceremony.
“I created a display of the original church with pictures and newspaper clippings. Everyone who signed our guest book had the opportunity to see the church on our property as it looked at the turn of the century.”
They were holding hands and swinging their arms as they walked. There was a crunch of leaves beneath their feet and a brisk chill in the air.
Each of them was quietly absorbed in her own thoughts: Sophie contemplated playing in the leaves; Grandma’s thoughts were of the countless brides who found happiness on the hallowed ground of her own front yard.
Do you have a story about Lambton's past that our readers may enjoy? Feel free to send it to Editor J.D. Booth.