History Of The Leith Church (Auld Kirk)

The past 40 years of the historic Leith Church

Since its formal inception in 1849, the Annan Trinity Church has been a centre of Presbyterian and United Church ministry on the southern shore of Owen Sound Bay. The first church structure at Annan was completed in 1856. The historic Leith Church was built in 1864 when Presbyterians in Canada divided into several factions. In 1877 the Leith and Annan congregations were reunited in a single pastoral charge. Since then, composition of the charge has varied. In the late 1960s, it included the Annan, Leith and Johnstone churches.

In 1969 four major changes took place in Grey Presbytery. The Johnstone church formally closed. A decision was made to amalgamate the Woodford congregation into the Annan pastoral charge in 1970 and to end services at nearby Silcote. The membership at Leith no longer justified maintaining it as a preaching point. However, Grey Presbytery and the Leith and Annan congregations agreed to keep the doors at Leith opened under the jurisdiction of the Annan Woodford charge, as long as the people of the Leith community sustained it financially. The Leith church members began to worship at Annan. The pastoral charge and its minister assumed the responsibility of conducting regular communion services at the historic Leith church sanctuary. A group of Annan church and Leith community members formed a board of trustees to care for the cemetery and structure.

In 1972, Grey Presbytery and the Annan Woodford charge assented to an initiative that saw the trustees and the Grey County Historical Society preserve Leith as an historic church. The historical society took over the responsibility for an annual anniversary service. As time went by, however, the condition of the building deteriorated until restoration became critical to its future.

In 1991, the impetus to restore the building was ignited by a volunteer body called the Sydenham Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee. It won an Ontario provincial historic heritage designation of the church building and old cemetery site. An official commemoration of the decision took place on August. 3, 1992. Events of that day, called “Leith Day”, were organized by LACAC and the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery. Following that milestone, a broad group of supporters including members of the Leith community and the Annan Woodford congregation and minister, representatives of the Sydenham Township Council and LACAC formed the Friends of Leith Church. FOLC raised $150,000, including government grants, to restore the building. The restoration was completed in 2002, 10 years later. Since then, FOLC has raised an average amount of $5,000 a year for building maintenance, including capital improvements and equipment replacement. In 2009, this included the installation of humanure toilets for the patrons, a green room for the performers, and in 2010, a new furnace. FOLC has also organized and run an annual program of cultural, community and spiritual programs that now includes regular concerts, three Christian services, a summer country fair and cĂ©ilidh, and a year-round monthly fiddle jam.

The fund-raising, restoration, maintenance, improvements and programming have been sustained and expanded for 25 years. This achievement has been made possible by the substantial financial and volunteer support of a core group of Leith and Annan Church and community members. The Friends of Leith Churchwas formed as a committee of the Annan-Woodford Pastoral Charge, and operated as such until 2017. It now functions as an independent committee, which leases the Church and assumes responsibilities of maintenance and restoration. Friends of Leith Church organizes the religious services, plays volunteer host to weddings and funerals, and stages popular artistic, cultural and community events. It fulfills the commitment made in 1972 to ensure that the United Church continues to play a vital role in the cultural community and spiritual life of Leith, Grey County and the Georgian Bay region.

Words are inadequate to sum up the labor, energy and financial commitment of the historic Leith Church supporters. They have endured periods of pennilessness and pessimism to achieve pinnacles of triumph and renewal. The restoration of the church building was a turning point in the preservation of Ontario’s historic architecture. The events at the church enrich the Leith community and the life of the Annan Woodford pastoral charge, and have won a provincial and national audience and reputation.

This is an excerpt from “REMINSCENCES OF NORTH SYDENHAM” – ‘ An Historical Sketch of the Villages of Annan and Leith’ – by Allan H. Ross

First published in 1924 by Richardson, Bond & Wright Limited in Owen Sound. The second edition was published in 1991 by Dorothy Telford and dedicated to the memory of her husband Major Murray M. Telford C.D.

Major Telford was the author of several books on historical subjects and was a cousin of Allan H. Ross Copies of “REMINISCENCES OF NORTH SYDENHAM” are available for sale by The Friends of Leith Church at a price of $25. Proceeds are directed to the Leith Church Restoration Fund. Here you can create the content that will be used within the module.

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The Churches

In the spring of 1864 Alexander Hunter came to Leith. He was then a student probationer for the Presbyterian Church in Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland, and in the following July active steps were taken in the organization of such a congregation. Doctor William Lang and Messrs George Corbet, William Glen and Adam Ainslie were among the leaders in this movement. The first congregational meeting was held in the school house, on July 20th. On motion M. MacDowell and William Lang were elected chairman and secretary pro tem respectively. It was then moved by Thomas Brown and seconded by Donald Cameron that the congregation do extend a call to the Reverend Alexander Hunter, B. A., to become their pastor and guide, which motion carried. The secretary pro tem was instructed to cooperate with William Johnstone of the Johnstone congregation in requesting the Presbytery to moderate in the call, and also to notify Mr. Hunter with the proceedings of the meeting. James Clark was elected a manager of the congregation, and the meeting adjourned.

At a second meeting of the congregation, held on January 5th, 1865, Mr. Hunter having been ordained on October 27th, 1864, it was moved by John Harkness and seconded by Donald Cameron that James Ross, Jr., be chairman of the congregation for the current year, and the following members were, also upon motion, duly elected as managers of the church for 1865: Thomas Rutherford, Dugald Spence, James Clark, John Crawford, James Gibson, Sr., Allan Ross, Donald Cameron and John Harkness. James Ross was also elected secretary treasurer, and was instructed to purchase the necessary books. Allan Ross, James Gibson, Sr., and John Harkness, all mechanics in the building trades by the way, were appointed a committee to investigate and report upon the estimated amount of money required to build a church, and the meeting adjourned.

The new minister being an enthusiast upon the project of a new church, and giving church members no rest until the enterprise was undertaken, a second meeting was held in January, same year, to devise plans to that end. John Harkness was at this meeting authorized to enter into any agreement suitable to himself with A. M. Stephens in regard to the quality of the bricks. James Ross, Jr., the secretary treasurer, was ordered to pay Mr. Harkness ninety dollars to enable that gentleman to make the first payment to A. M. Stephens on thirty thousand bricks at four dollars and fifty cents a thousand. Thomas Rutherford was instructed to purchase 1000 feet of lumber to protect the bricks, and the meeting adjourned.

The church was accordingly erected in the summer of 1865, and has ever since served the Leith congregation through its changing fortunes. It is a brick building of a very considerable size for that time, plain but substantial, its most remarkable feature being the immense width of the dressed pine used in making the seats. What would the country’s lumber dealers not give to have such pine now! Mr. Hunter was at this time in the meridian of his physical powers, and his activity that summer must have been tremendous. All of the work that could be done by members of the congregation was performed by them, with the minister constantly in the forefront of operations. He had, in addition to his labors at Leith, the congregation at Johnstone to minister to, the two having been united with the coming of Mr. Hunter to Leith in 1864. The fiftieth anniversary service of the Leith Church was observed in August, 1916, the minister officiating being the Reverend John Ross, of Boston, Mass., since deceased. Mr. Ross was the son of the first secretary-treasurer of the Leith congregation.

The minute book of the congregation, purchased in 1864, and which is still doing active duty, has been religiously followed in the foregoing, but there is no further report, for some reason, of the annual meetings until that of 1871. There is a full record of the minutes of a special meeting held January 15th, 1866, however, at which plans were made for a monster soiree, or “swarry” as Sam Weller would call it, to mark the opening of the new church. The following persons were named, on motion, as a committee of management for this “swarry’: William Keefer, George Jolley, Henry Lang, William Gibson, Robert Crawford, James Reid, James MacDowell, William Veitch, Malcolm MacNeil, Hugh C. Ross, Matthew Alexander, Alex. Ainslie and Henry Rixon. The managers of the Church were added to this committee, and Mr. Hunter was on motion requested to wait on Adam Ainslie, Esq., to ascertain if he would consent to act as chairman, a request that was kindly acceded to. The Reverend Robert Dewar of Annan was extended a special invitation to be present, the most polite punctilio always being observed between congregations of the time in such matters. There is no written record of the celebration itself, but from stories told of it that have become traditional, the event must have been one that was long remembered.

The opening of the Church and four years that followed it marked the halcyon days of the Leith congregation. The personal magnetism of Mr. Hunter, combined with certain other circumstances, were factors that made the attendance at services larger than at any subsequent time in the congregation’s history. From the home of Doctor Lang, near Manders Corners, down to that of James Gibson, Sr., on Concession A, a distance of nearly ten miles, every family with only one or two exceptions attended. Many families on the Lake Shore Line also made it their place of worship. The church was filled to over-flowing every Sunday, summer and winter. The village had about this time reached its peak in both prosperity and population, and many of their Baptist brethren joined the Presbyterians in divine service there every Sunday. The Johnstone congregation also seems to have flourished at the time. The minister of course had troubles all his own. There were backsliders in such a large flock, some of whom must have weighed upon his spirits, but never once did a word of annoyance pass his lips in speaking about them to others of his congregation. To his zeal and earnestness, to his indefatigable and energetic industry, there was added a patience and forbearance not always to be found with the first named qualities, and at which men marveled for long after he had gone.

Alexander Hunter was born in Glasgow, on June 16th, 1828, and shortly after his birth his parents moved to the neighborhood of the village of Lanark, where he received the elements of his education. He had the Scottish characteristic of a thirst for knowledge and in spite of the difficulties of his situation-a life of labor in which he had to rise early and sit late-he cultivated his naturally strong powers of observation and mastered an extraordinary amount of general information, which in later years served him in good stead. When admitted as a member to the Presbyterian Church of Montrose Street, Glasgow, the Reverend Mr. McGill, who then presided over it, said that in all his experience as a minister he had never examined one who had attained to such a degree in secular and christian knowledge.

He was the third in a family of ten sons and two daughters and with the family immigrated to Canada in 1842, settling on a farm in Wellington County. They faced the hardships and privations shared by all settlers in a new land, but after years of hard labor they raised themselves to a position of independence and influence in the neighborhood. The death of this father, a worthy and God-fearing man, took place in 1846, and it was shortly after this he conceived the idea of entering the Christian ministry, being urged to such a decision by the Reverend Duncan Morrison, of Knox Church, Owen Sound. That decision once taken, there was no turning back. He prosecuted his theological studies with an enthusiasm that carried him through every difficulty, won honors in every year of his college course and, in the final examinations in Theological Hall, won the highest distinction in the gift of the Senate of that institution, the degree of Bachelor of Divinity. Out of a maximum number of five hundred marks, Mr. Hunter stood highest in taking four hundred and twenty-five, or nearly seven-eights. His nearest competitor was Mr. Smith, afterwards Presbyterian minister at Belleville, who had four hundred and twenty-three. Upon some technicality, however, which has never been clearly explained, the Senate refused to grant the degree he had so nobly and honestly won. This was a keen disappointment to him, although few ever guessed it from the composure with which he referred to the incident. Had he lived Mr. Hunter would undoubtedly have risen to the highest honors that can be bestowed by that great branch of the Protestant Church in Canada, whose tenets and doctrines he so ably championed before the people. Men do not come to such honors as Mr. Hunter won in his studies by mere chance. Regardless of their natural ability it takes unflagging industry and brain-sweat to accomplish such results.

His coming to Leith as a student and his ordaination to the ministry have already been referred to. During his pastorate the Johnstone Church was built, largely by reason of the agitation he carried on with that end in view. This church was torn down a few years ago and replaced with a thoroughly modern brick one, and since its building the Johnstone congregation has taken a new lease of enthusiasm. In fact, Mr. Hunter’s labors in Leith and Johnstone were singularly blessed, and the evidence of such a bountiful harvest in that portion of the vineyard entrusted to his care must often have rejoiced his heart.

Late in September, 1869, Mr. Hunter was stricken with disease, which made its first appearance on a Sunday, when he had great difficulty in finishing the services. The fever from which he suffered soon ran its fatal course. On October 11th he came to the end of all things earthly; his passing was marked by a calm resignation and the highest Christian fortitude. A high minded gentleman, a splendid citizen, a devoted husband and father, “good without effort, great without a foe,” went to his eternal reward. He died in his forty-second year and in the fifth year of his ministry, survived by his widow and two young sons.

Three days later the last obsequies took place. The Reverend Duncan Morrison, with whom Mr. Hunter had been closely associated for many years, was asked to preach the funeral sermon and consented. He chose for his text 2nd Timothy, 4th chapter, 6th, 7th and 8th verses: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness,” etc., and expatiated in a very striking manner on the shining example of the deceased. Mr. Hunter had ministered to a people who had a characteristic Scottish horror of a scene and took a sort of sullen pride in, concealing their feelings, but as the service proceeded it became evident their emotions were profoundly stirred. To every one of them came the sense of personal loss-the loss of a tried friend and trusted counselor who had been a very present help in time of trouble.

The day was quiet and peaceful as is the wont of our weather in mid-October. At the conclusion of the service the remains of the congregation’s first minister were, within a few yards of the church where he had labored so faithfully and with such signal success, laid away in the last resting place which awaits us all, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”

In 1871 a movement was started by the congregation to erect a suitable monument to his memory, and a subscription list for this laudable purpose was circulated there and in the Johnstone congregation as well. The result was that in due time a marble shaft, about twelve feet high, was raised on the burial plot, the cost of which was about three hundred dollars. On the square marble block surmounting the base are four tablets, one of which bears the name of the deceased, with his theological degrees and the facts relative to his life, ministry and death. The one directly opposite bears the following inspiration:

Mr. Hunter was a man greatly beloved, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, and long to be remembered by his people, among whom he labored with an affection that never wearied and that shone brightest at the close. The authorship of this deserved tribute to his memory has, whether correctly or not, also been attributed to the Reverend Duncan Morrison. Regardless of this however, it reflects accurately the sentiments cherished by his people toward one whose memory still flourishes green among their children, a memory constantly reminding us that.

Only the actions of the just Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

If ever a man adorned the high calling wherewith he was called, that man was the Reverend Alexander Hunter. Such a death is surely a triumph, when one leaves behind him a remembrance that is blessed of all men. As one of the beacon lights in England’s literature said of her greatest naval hero; “Thus it is that the spirits of the great and just continue to live and to act after them.”

The site of the Church, and the commodious and beautiful ground for the cemetery which immediately surrounds it, had been very generously presented to the congregation in 1864 by Mr. Adam Ainslie. The subsoil is sandy but admirably adapted to the growth of evergreens and other ornamental trees. The price of burial plots was first fixed at $2.00, the names at the first nineteen purchasers being as follows: Matthew Alexander, Arthur Cameron, Richard Alexander, David Butchart, Mrs. William, Glen James Gibson, Mr. Fawcett, David MacDowell, John Crawford, Allan Graham, Henry Lang, John Mathieson, William Jolley, Mrs. Jolley, James S. Wilson, Daniel Cameron, Peter Burr and Charles Lemon. The first interment was that of a Miss Marshall, of one of the earliest and most favorably known families among the settlers in the village.

One of the senses in which Mr. Hunter’s demise had been a genuine calamity to the congregation was soon in evidence. A congregational meeting was held, in 1870, to consider the question of a call to his successor. The matter soon resolved itself into a choice between two candidates, Messrs. MacDonald and Rogers. The line of difference in opinion was sharply drawn. Mr. Macdonald was an eloquent preacher and had many estimable personal qualities as well, marred, however, by one failing. To put it bluntly, he was too fond of booze. The Rogers division, enthusiastic and determined, were in a decided majority; Mr. MacDonald’s admirers, fewer in numbers but just as enthusiastic and determined as their opponents, followed the able leadership William Lang. These latter were disposed to view Mr. MacDonald’s ancient Scottish failing with a lenient eye. At last, after long discussion, Mr. Lang proposed a compromise-“It is clear” he said, “we shall never be agreed. Let us discard both of these gentlemen, continue to hear probationers, and by and by we will find some other one upon whom we are all agreed.” But the majority, standing upon its rights as a majority, was firm. Mr. Rogers was given a call, and one of the consequences of that call was that the Leith congregation lost about a third of its membership. The families Lang and Spence on Concession A. and Lamont, Mathieson and MacKay on the Lake Shore Line, to mention a few among many, either dropped their membership quit regular attendance, or attended only occasionally.

The congregation still remained a large one, however. The Reverend Edward B. Rogers was inducted, and it was everywhere admitted the Leith and Johnstone congregations had the best pulpit orator in the Owen Sound Presbytery. He was a model of diligence and burned the midnight oil, memorizing all his sermons until he was letter perfect. His housekeeper used to hear him tramping the floor of his study until after midnight, declaiming and occasionally stopping to correct himself. He was a tea drinking bachelor, and it says little for the fair enslavers of Leith they allowed him to remain one until after his departure. But he paid little attention to visiting as a pastoral duty and his congregation never warmed to him as they had to Mr. Hunter. In 1876 he received a call from the Kilsyth congregation. After his departure the question of severing the connection with Johnstone and uniting with Annan became a live issue. After several protracted sessions, at which the Reverend John Somerville acted as Moderator, the articles of the Basis of Union with Annan were accepted by both congregations and they were united under one minister early in 1877. They have so continued ever since.

Obituary as reported in the Owen Sound Sun Times of March 10, 1921