Our Parish History …

Welcome to the first Roman Catholic Parish in the Ottawa Valley!

The Bathurst CourierEven though many local history books and even the dedication stone above the main entrance say the church was “Erected in 1848″, the cornerstone was put in place on May 19, 1847. An article from the Bathurst Courier published on June 1, 1847 and written by the pastor, outlines the elaborate ceremony that went with the laying of the cornerstone. Other articles reveal that the foundations were under construction in July of 1843. Construction of the new church was a long process particularly since the pastor insisted each part of the construction be paid for before it could take place.

St. JohnsThe first Mass was held in the current church on Christmas Eve in 1848 after the roof and bell tower were raised and sufficient numbers of benches were available. By all accounts it was simply a white-washed stone interior that greeted parishioners that Christmas. The church was heated temporarily by four large wood and coal-fired heaters.

After those initial services the interior of the church was roughly finished and was finally consecrated on August 15th, 1849, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was a large community celebration attended by over 2000 people representing all faiths in the community and 500 children who had been prepared for confirmation. The interior of the church, as we see it today, was essentially left until the 1890′s before it was completed. Prior to 1900 a visitor would have seen only the stone interior walls and very little ornamentation. Three tall Gothic doors opened to four or five steps in the narthex of the church and then a steeply sloped floor. During a decade of significant renovations the entrance of the church was raised, the doors shortened, the slope of the floor reduced, the balcony expanded and the steeples added. A sacristy was added at the back-west of the sanctuary. Major renovations throughout the 1950′s removed many of the older elements from within the sanctuary including the preaching pulpit and an historic “Warren Pipe Organ” (1) which was in the balcony. Change continued during the 1960′s and recently attempts have been made to restore some of the beauty of the sanctuary to its look in early 1900 while incorporating the needs of the modern liturgy. It is a testimony to local craftsmen that it is almost impossible to see where the renovations took place.

The earliest years can be quite confusing but recent documents show that Scottish Catholics were in the area perhaps as early as 1804. It is well documented that Catholics in the Military Settlement on the Rideau had been served by visiting missionaries from 1816 to 1823. Fr. Périnault (2), a missionary priest from Kingston, travelled through the Pikes Falls area (the original name of Perth) as early as 1815. The chaplain of the de Watteville Regiment, Abbé Pierre de la Mothe (3), was given 800 acres of land in 1817 and was apparently well known in the community. The diaries of the Rev. William Bell mention him as being a minister in the early settlement. Settlement records show that “The Red House” was frequently used for church services.  The records also show a French priest Abbé Pierre-Jacques de la Mothe (see 3 & 4), and former de Meuron chaplain, was in the settlement up until 1820. An official letter exists showing his arrival in February of 1817. (4)  Fr. Patrick Sweeney, who built a chapel at Perth and administered along the (now) Ottawa River, succeeded either Abbé Pierre-Jacques de la Mothe, Fr. Bennett or Fr. Labroufe (5) in 1820.

The location of St. Bridget’s Church, on Doran’s Sand Hill (near the intersection of Harvey and Beckwith Streets), appears on the original survey map of 1816 even though construction would not start until 1820. A pencil sketch of the building appears on the map of 1822. The first resident pastor was Fr. John MacDonald who arrived in 1823 (6) to the wooden church. Rev. John McDonagh, the second resident pastor, built the current church. This stone church was 115 feet long by 60 wide. (6) An addition was added in 1899 to accommodate new altars and more seating. Most of the stained glass and interior decoration comes from this period. The 2000 lb. church bell was cast in Glasgow in 1831 and originally hung in the bell tower of St. Bridget’s Church before being moved to its current location in 1848. (St. Bridget’s Church was burned in the 1850′s as part of a training event and competition for the local fire fighters.)

The settlement in 1828. Click to see full size.In 1826, the Diocese of Kingston was established with Bishop Alexander MacDonnell appointed as the first Bishop in Upper Canada. His appointment is of special interest to the story of Perth since MacDonnell was the founder and chaplain of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, one of the principal regiments granted land in the military settlement. By his energy and perseverance he induced a considerable immigration to the province, and left at his death, in 1840, forty-eight churches attended by thirty priests. The memory that survives him is that of a great missionary, prelate and patriot — often referred to as the “Apostle of Ontario”.

The current St. John the Baptist Church is the oldest church structure in Perth and was located outside the original Town limits. The land for the church was donated by an Anglican, Dr. Alexander Thom, Perth’s first surgeon. The church is noted for its vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross and pews scaled to the smaller physiques of the 1800′s. The carved stone “consecration crosses” can be seen on the side walls. Originally there would have been twelve crosses. The whereabouts of the two that would have been in the front and two in the back walls are unknown, having most likely been removed during the renovations around 1900. Located at the end of Brock Street, St. Johns was one of the “vista-views” that originally defined the boundaries of the growing community. On January 28, 1911 the Archbishop of Kingston, Charles-Hughes Gauthier visited the parish. An article published in the Courier at that time outlined the Bishop’s personal memories of the early parish. The full article appears above.

Renovations, which began around 1895 and took over five years, added approximately an additional fifty feet to the sanctuary and added the sacristy. The inside walls of the church were completed, the spires added. There were significant renovations to the slope of the floor, which was significantly steeper at the time, and the front entrances changed. Currently, if you stand at the third pew row from the front, you are roughly standing where the back wall of the original church was located. It is a tribute to the stone masons (and to the local quarries) that the significant addition is not noticeable when looking at the stone work and foundation.

St. Johns RectorySt. John’s Rectory was erected in 1856 as a Priests’ House and has changed very little since then. The rectory was built by Fr. John Hugh McDonagh with his own money on property he owned personally. A staunch Irishman, Fr. McDonagh was pastor from 1838-1866 and was buried beneath the altar of his beloved church. His tombstone is currently mounted on the wall of the church.(7) Two other priests were interred under the original altar, which would have stood approximately where the fourth pew from the front currently sits. The original full front veranda of the rectory was replaced by the current enclosed entrance and the upstairs balcony eliminated.

The GrottoSt. John’s Convent (next to the Rectory) was erected in 1905 to house the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. They had come to the Parish is 1892, primarily as teachers in St. John School. They served the parish, school and community in a very significant way throughout their years in Perth. From 1985-1992 it was used as St. John’s High School until a more suitable building was erected on the Scotch Line. For a short period beginning in 1993 it was used as a Parish Centre but is now part of St. John’s Elementary School. The Sisters served in the community for 162 years until June 2009, living in the residence at 15 Church Street.

The St. John’s Elementary School we see today was constructed in 1926, replacing two previous wooden schools. The original structure has had two subsequent additions to accommodate increased enrollment. On December 26, 1892, at the request of Archbishop Cleary, five Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul arrived in Perth to teach in St. John’s School. In return for teaching at the school the sisters received $600.00 each year because there were no school grants. It remained fully a parish school until the late 1960s and can still be considered, along with SJCHS, as a parish school in many ways.

The grotto beside the church was dedicated in October of 1950 as part of a Marian Year of celebrations. The Catholic Women’s League was instrumental in raising the funds to build the grotto. During that year St. John’s saw several large rallies which drew thousands to the grounds around the church.

Land for the St. John’s Cemetery was purchased by Fr. James Chisholm (pastor from 1866-1878) in 1872. In 1867 the Town of Perth had moved to close the Craig Street Cemetery (often referred to locally as “The Old Burying Ground” although in reality that Methodist cemetery can be found a few blocks south on Robinson Street) due to overcrowding and the church desired to retain management of their own cemetery rather than remain part of a community burying ground.  As was common at the period, several families moved the remains of loved ones to the new cemetery which is located on the eastern edge of the community, to the north of Hwy. 43 (Craig Street.) Visitors to the cemetery will notice dates as early as 1844 as a result. Fr. Chisholm’s tombstone is mounted on the wall of the church and his remains are interred in the crypt below the church’s floor (7).

Book Front CoverA detailed history, “175 Years Of Faith: The Story of the Parish of St. John The Baptist, Perth” outlining the history of the Roman Catholic community in our area was written in 1998. Copies of the book are available at local bookstores and at the back of the church. This in-depth book contains many photographs and copies of written documentation that were retrieved from archives and museums. For anyone researching family histories or attempting to obtain research documents related to the development of faith in Upper Canada this book is prime source.

OUR MISSION STATEMENT
As followers of Jesus, we, the family of St. John the Baptist Parish, in union with the Holy Spirit, are dedicated to building a Christian Community by proclaiming God’s Word through service and prayer.

OUR VISION STATEMENT
We will reach out and nurture the faith of all parishioners.
We will respond to the needs of the community locally and globally
We will continue to foster the working together of home, school, parish.
We will encourage active involvement in parish life.

Notes:

(1) The original Warren Pipe Organ was signed on the inside back panel, “To Monseigneur Donough, Perth, Upper Canada, organ number nine.” The Perth Standard reported on October 4, 1857, “The New Organ: On Sunday, October 4, a new and excellent organ was played for the first time at Divine Service. The instrument is enclosed in a neat oak case, and consists of about sixteen hundred pipes, (those in front being highly ornamented, crimson and gold), twenty-one stops, two rows of keys and an octave and a half of pedals. One stop alone is worthy of being particularly mentioned and is called the “Tremulant …” This stop give a particular tremulous expression to the piece of music that may be playing, and adds much to the effect. The pedal pipes are also very powerful.” Today only a small portion of the original pipe facade remains.

(2) Périnault, Pierre-Joseph, ordonné le 17 août 1794; curé de La Rivière-des-Prairies; 1806 du Sault-au-Récollet; 1815 de Kingston; 1818 du Saint-Esprit, jusqu’à sa mort; décédé à Montréal le 29 juin 1821, à 50 ans. Inhumé au Sault-au Récollet. (“Répertoire général du clergé canadien”, Tome 1 (1534-1846), p. 160.)

(3) Were there two priests bearing the same last name? It is unlikely, but possible! The name “Abbé Lamothe” (sometimes “Lamott” or “La Mottie”)  appears in many different forms on various early documents, records and “de la Mothe” or simply “Lamothe” was not an uncommon name at the time. This has caused considerable discussion among local historians: could there may have been two priests, Abbé Pierre de la Mothe and Abbé Pierre-Jacques de la Mothe (3), in the settlement prior to 1820?

The farms along the Christie Lake Road (3rd con. Bathurst), 1817-1818, were taken up principally by the retired soldiers of the de Watteville and deMeuron Regiments — Swiss, Belgians, Germans, Poles and Italians, at first conscripts in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, gathered from these various nationalities, and compelled to serve in his campaigns — and who afterwards, when taken prisoners by the British, volunteered to serve for our empire in the war of 1812-1815 against the United States. The records show that an Abbé Lamothe settled among the Burgess soldiers in 1817, in lot 7 in 7th con near what we now call “Adam’s Lake”.  Another land grant entry contains: “Jean Mashufsky, de Watteville, Burgess, C7, Lot SW8, and Pierre Basko, de Watteville, C7, NE8, June 22, 1816, reported gone to the States. Properties to Rev. Abbé LaMothe, C DW, Sept. 17, 1817.”  There is a letter to the Rev. Pierre de la Mothe, Chaplain of the late DeWatteville Regiment, dated 31st October of that year, from Mr. Daniel Daverne  of the Settling Department, regarding the location of lands.

Abbé Pierre de la Mothe reportedly died in Perth, East Ward, in the building “where Mrs. McNaughton now keeps a grocery.” Another report written for the Perth Historical and Antiquarian Society (circa 1900) records “He died in Perth in a log house where Mrs. Canton’s grocery now is.” In 1899 Mrs. Mary Ann Canton’s store was located on the southwest corner of Gore Street and Craig Street. No date for his death is given.

Abbé Pierre-Jacques de la Mothe was born on February 27, 1762 in Gascogne, France; he died in Saint-Scholastique, Québec on October 22, 1847. In between he was a missionary priest in what is now Ontario (Perth and Kingston). This has been confirmed with the Archdiocese of Montreal – in their “Répertoire général du clergé canadien”, Tome 1 (1534-1846), p. 176. Abbé Pierre-Jacques de la Mothe died at the age of 84.

If indeed there was only one missionary priest in Perth with the family name “de la Mothe”, his first name clearly contained the name “Pierre”. We are left with a dilemma … conflicting dates, different regiments, stories, properties and different death locations.

(4) The diaries of the Rev. William Bell refer to the European nature of the early settlement. Bell writes that it was not the purely Scottish settlement that had been portrayed prior to his arrival on June 24, 1817. By the time Abbé Pierre-Jacques de la Mothe would have arrived (see above), the community was beginning to grow with a large influx of Scottish and early Irish settlers. These English speaking settlers lived within the boundaries of the early settlement while those from central Europe lived in the surrounding townships.

If the letter attributed to Abbé Pierre de la Mothe, written to Mgr. Plessis, Bishop of Quebec on February 17, 1817, is accurate then he was the first official pastor to arrive in the Military Settlement and not the Rev. William Bell as current history reports. It is accurate to hypothesize that, if they are indeed not one and the same person, a “de la Mothe” was the first pastor to be sent to the settlement: Abbé Pierre de la Mothe arrived months before William Bell.

An article on Father de la Mothe’s experience in the settlement was reprinted in the Ottawa Evening Citizen on June 11, 1938. It is difficult to determine whether this article is talking about one priest or a combined version of their stories.

(5) The references to Fr. Bennett and Fr. Labroufe are found in the personal recollections of Archbishop Charles-Hughes Gauthier from the speech given at the time of his parish visit in January of 1911. To date, these are the only references the author has located to the ministry of these priests.

(6) Fr. McDonald writes on March 20, 1825 that he “finds the miserable mission at Perth is now a well established parish with nothing lacking.”  Some historians and documents support him becoming resident as late as 1825. There are documents which show his arrival date as being 1823, the year that Bishop Macdonell established Perth as one of the first six parishes in Upper Canada. Fr. McDonald’s own diary shows he arrived first in settlement on April 16, 1823 at 7:00 PM and the first parish record is holographed by him dated 1823. Research shows that Fr. Sweeney was also present for five years beginning in 1820 living at the home of Benjamin Delisle. It is clear that Fr. McDonald was assigned and came to Perth in 1823 and that Fr. Sweeney was very involved in the Military Settlement at Richmond at that time finally leaving the Perth settlement in 1825. Like so many early charges, the pastors were essentially missionary priests traveling out to meet their congregations. This would account for the apparent overlap in dates. For these reasons the 1823 arrival date is considered the most accurate.

(7) The original back wall of the church was approximately where the second row of pews are located today. The remains of three of the founding priests are said to be interred below the floor at approximately that location. Their grave markers are currently found in the side walls of the church: Fr. J.H.McDonagh, Fr. J.J.Chisholm and Fr. M. O’Donahue. A fourth stone commemorates Fr. T. Davis who is buried in the St. John’s Cemetery. Originally these markers were installed in the floor of the sanctuary. The markers were removed with the renovations that took place around 1900 and stored in the basement of the church. It is unclear whether the original vaults were also moved.

… this article has been researched and written by Deacon Brent McLaren. It is an ongoing work-in-progress and any contributions, corrections or additional information is always appreciated. The page was last edited on November 9, 2012.