A Brief History

A Brief History of the Presbyterian Church at Sutherland’s River

To use a familiar phrase, in the beginning there were three divisions of Presbyterianism in Pictou County, the Kirk, the Anti-burghers, and the Free Church. The people of these congregations who had settled in Merigomish, Egerton, Telford, French River, Wentworth Grant, Sutherland’s River Big Cove, and Pine Tree found the distances involved in attending their respective churches difficult. Though there is no record when the movement began, plans were being made to build a centrally located community church at Sutherland’s River where each congregation could meet.

On February 3rd, 1854 this site was purchased from Daniel Rankin. Signing as Trustees were: James McDonald, Egerton, representing the Anti-burghers, John Munro, Big Cove, the Kirk, and Simon Collins, Telford, the Free Church.

Myth has it that on September 18th of that year agreement was reached to proceed.

The written record begins on October 3rd what at a meeting held at Sutherland’s River schoolhouse, J. MacRae demands a proper minute book as a condition of his serving as secretary. This was granted out of church funds. Thanks to Mr. MacRae we have a written record of the church building and the first steps toward Union.

Following the reading of the minutes of the previous meeting, the October meeting applied itself to locating the needed supplies for building. Shingles were bargained for with Daniel MacKenzie of Antigonish at a price of 3 shillings 6 pence per thousand. Six truck wagons were dispatched to bring these and other supplies to the site. Nails and iron were brought from New Glasgow. The stones for the foundation were to come from Sutherland’s Brook where they could be easily quarried and transported. If there was a head carpenter in charge of the building he is not named. Each of the communities (or congregations?) mustered the labour for different stages of construction.

In all they held thirty four meetings from October 3rd, 1854 until December 21st 1858. Plans were made and revised, collectors were sent out to see the subscription lists were paid up. Tenders were called for the finish work, most usually the successful candidate was William Cameron. Cameron agreed to do all the work of building and putting in the windows as well as a double door with a casing for 9 pounds i8 shillings, the low tender. Daniel McQueen “furred the door and lathed the ceiling”. The quarrying of stone for the foundation was not proceeding well. The leaders of the different communities were exhorted to rally their neighbours for the effort. As it was the building appears to have been complete before the stones were in place. Perhaps this was not unusual at the time.

The women were busy too, collecting money for “necessaries” for the church such as a stove and a pulpit. They were very successful at this and the “female collectors” were complimented by the meeting for their efforts.

According to the minutes, the first occupancy of the church came on June 22nd 1857 when the building committee met there. The building was completed, cleaned, and temporary seating installed by April 7th, 1858. No mention is made in the record as to whether services began at this time or who conducted them. They opened their business meetings with prayer but beyond that they seemed satisfied that they were building the Lord’s house. The contract to supply the permanent seating was let to John Fraser, whose design was to give new meaning to uprightness of Presbyterians.

The month of December 1858 was one of fierce executive activity, the arrangement of the seats and the singing pews and how they were to be allotted was decided. Forty-five seats were sold to subscribers. The price was graduated, the most expensive being at the front. Is this the reason Presbyterians have a tendency to crowd into back seats? The seats were sold at auction, James MacDonald acting as vendor. Purchasers were asked to sign a note payable in three weeks. They were to settle accounts January 19th, 1859. John Munroe was appointed treasurer. He was instructed by the committee to take charge of church and “copper” collections, and authorized to pay all debts due for different contracts. A previous meeting on December 10th passed a series of resolutions that would govern the management of the church and with them came the first dissent. One member withdrew.

Through the 1860’s the meetings were less frequent but they are still building, a barn for the minister’s horse, a picket fence, twelve lamps for lighting the sanctuary. The aforementioned picket fence led to a lawsuit naming John Munroe and Alexander Fraser as defendants. They were successfully defended by James R. McDonald and the plaintiff, Rod Henderson, paid costs. Aside from housing the horse, no mention is made of who is taking charge of the services. Reverend A.P. Miller held prayer meetings during the week and likely would have had Sunday services as well. Mr. Miller, a native of Alboa, Scotland, had served as minister of the Merigomish congregation until his retirement in 1862 and continued to supply pulpits in the area until his death. The minutes note that a “singing school” would be held in the church “as the schoolhouse is not suitable”, and “No public Temperance lecturer be not admitted to the church”. So said the meeting of January 7th 1861. The British and Foreign mission Society held regular meetings and they were voted the right to take up collections in the church “using the ladles or a box”. and the minister or ministers be advised of this.

On April 11th 1871, members of the congregation from French River put a proposition to the meeting that a subscription list be started to receive names of those who would be willing to sever their connections with their present congregations and unite into one congregation at Sutherland’s River “and thus test our ability for raising stipends to procure a portion of the services of one minister” The motion passed. All was not unanimity though, the Church of Scotland congregation continued to hold separate until the 1880’s.

In 1875 the minister called was Reverend W. T. Bruce. As there was no manse to offer, Mr. Bruce boarded at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel McQueen, and later brought his bride there.

It has been generally accepted that at this point the congregations at Sutherland’s River and the Vale Colliery were joined. It’s true that there was a move in the Vale to form a congregation but that did not come about until 1876, and the Presbyterians at the church in Sutherland’s River had other things on their mind. They were concerned with apportioning of time between the United and the Church of Scotland congregation….”shall occupy the church every alternative Sunday lin the forenoon till the first of May inclusive. Whence the United congregation shall have the service in the forenoon till the end of the year. The Church of Scotland in the evening. Each to bear half the expense of the church”. Two years later, in 1881, good sense prevailed: ” a discussion arose as to the desirability of amalgamating the two branches of the church. A motion showed the meeting to be unanimously in favor of such a union.” Having thus disposed of the fine points of doctrine they went to the down to earth discussion of the ever present and ever in arrears “subscription list”.

But there were other plans afoot however, The Presbyterian Witness, of Halifax reports from a July 27th, 1878 meeting of the Pictou Presbytery……”The contemplated union of the Presbyterian congregations of the Vale Colliery and Sutherland’s River was then considered. The resolutions of the two congregation were read, the commissioners from both congregations were heard fully in explanation of these resolutions. And after full consideration of the whole case as thus presented, the Presbytery decided that matters are not yet quite right for the union of these two congregations, and that consequently in the meantime we must wait the leadings of Providence in the hope that ‘ere long every barrier will be removed, that now stand in the way to a harmonious and satisfactory union.” On June 27th, 1882, the barriers harmonious or otherwise seem to have dissolved, and there is in the minutes a reference to “the Vale and Sutherland’s River congregation” and on June 5th 1886, the congregational meeting at Sutherland’s River voted that $200 be paid to the treasurer of the Vale congregation as stipend.

Changes began within the decade, with the prosperity at the turn of the century, the inside of the church was refurbished, the ladies were given the pleasant task of directing this. New floor covering installed, and cushions for the seats. The singing pews were replaced. A platform was built for the pulpit and the choir. An organ was purchased (after debate). In 1900 the church was extended fifteen feet. The managers of the church met with the Christian Endeavor executive to discuss the building of a church hall. However, two World Wars, Church Union, and a major economic depression would pass before anything this ambitious would be attempted.

In 1942, electric lights replaced the “twelve lamps” and two years later, a concrete foundation replaced the stones quarried from Sutherland’s Brook. A hardwood floor and new seats were installed, banishing John Fraser’s straight backed pews with the ridge strategically placed to see no worshipers relaxed.

In 1945, as a sign of the times, the barn for the minister’s horse was sold.

A steeple was added in 1953, and a year later, a bell was purchased from Reverse Riverside Presbyterian Church, Prince William, N. B. It was installed in time to be rung in celebration of the church’s 100th anniversary.

On May 5th, 1959, the Pictou Presbytery granted the congregation it’s own Roll, Session, and Clerk. Until this time all records had been kept at Thorburn. Gilbert Fraser was appointed Clerk of Session and remained in that post until 1994.

The following year in response of the influx of new residents with young families, the church building was raised, an entry and a full basement was built to supply a much needed church hall. The hall was equipped with an oil fired furnace, a washroom and a kitchen and has proved its usefulness over the years as a center for Christian education, church organizations, meetings and congregational socials.

In 1980 a stained glass window was dedicated to the memory of Mabel MacPhee Leil by her family. The rest of William Cameron’s “five lights in height and three in breadth” with the original glass intact were in place until 1997. His double doors are gone and Daniel McQueen’s ceiling has given away to tile but the purpose of this church remains the same, to weld the people of the communities that built it, to act as a bulwark and a source of enlightenment, the anchor that holds.

It would not be possible to name the people whose dedication to the service of the congregation has kept it alive through the years, but within memory Mrs. Ethel Maclean, organist for thirty seven years, perhaps longer. There is record of a presentation being made to her, thanking her for her services, in 1929.She retired in 1956. Mrs. Edna MacLellan served many years as treasurer, Mrs Ada King and Mrs Jean Powell who served as secretary for innumerable meeting. Relief Mackay organist for thirty years and her husband Alec for his service as Sunday School Superintendent over an equal time period. Gilbert Fraser retiring in 1994 as Clerk of Session for thirty-five years. We hope that this tradition of service serves as an inspiration to the younger members and that they too will carry on in the faith of our fathers.

Compiled and written by Marjorie (Mardie) Scott © 1994

This information was gleaned from the minutes of the Congregational Meetings from 1854-1994, and from papers collected by Relief Mackay.

The research at the Nova Scotia Archives was done by Marjorie and Everett Jeans.

HTML version prepared by Marjorie Taylor 1998

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