“Like you’ve been transported back to the very early years of Canada,” he responds. “And absolutely nothing has changed, in 180 years.”
Indeed, The Old Stone Church, outside the pretty town of Beaverton, on the eastern shores of Lake Simcoe, remains locked in time. Neither hydro, indoor plumbing nor central heat welcomes those who come to look and wonder today.
From the Highlands to Canada
In 1832, a generation at least before Canada became a united country, a group of hardy Scots, from the highlands of Glengarry cast their fortunes to “the New World.”
Pious folk were they were—Presbyterians. And once their simple log homes were underway, they made plans to build a “kirk,” a church.
In 1840, construction began on St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. It’s the formal name by which “The Old Stone Church” is known.
And what a model of Scottish grit and resilience was this simple house of worship. In the Neo-classical architectural style, with foundation and walls of Lake Simcoe limestone and fieldstone, The Old Stone Church rose, largely thanks to volunteer labour.
Ten high-arched windows invited in the natural light. But no wall adornments or proud stained glass would grace this house of worship–only plain whitewashed walls.
All worshippers’ eyes focused on the elevated pulpit. Front and centre, eight feet above the ground level pews, the pulpit afforded St. Andrew’s Pastor clear view of the second floor balcony, built on three sides of the Church. All the better to keep his unflinching eye on latecomers or those hoping to catch a few nods of Sunday morning sleep.
Legend tells that men travelled 10 miles to cut the pine and oak from the virgin forests to build the stairs, doors and pews. Piece by piece they dragged it back. And so the Old Stone Church grew.
Little could its congregation have foretold what misfortunes lay ahead.
Church Problems in Scotland
Across the ocean, the Church of Scotland was in turmoil. Since the early 1700’s, under an Act of Parliament, wealthy patrons of the Church of Scotland had enjoyed the right to install Church Ministers of their choosing.
The issue had simmered for over 100 years. Matters came to a head in 1834 with the election of the Scottish Evangelical Party to Parliament. One of their first orders of business was to pass The Veto Act. This struck down the earlier patronage laws.
In protest, over 450 “old school” Presbyterian Ministers left the church. They set up their own “New Scottish Church” parishes.
The schism crossed the ocean to fledgling little congregations in Canada. As church members wrangled, construction of The Old Stone Church in Beaverton ground to a halt.
The walls of the church had gone up, with its windows in place, and a roof overhead, but neither floor nor pews were in place.
Over the next 10 years, as church doctrines were debated on both sides of the Atlantic, in little Beaverton, a break-off congregation left the Old Stone Church to begin anew. Those remaining, worshipped God with their feet on sandy ground, sitting on split rails. Neither floor nor pews had been put in place.
A test of endurance in the winter months, for sure. Sunday services lasted all day, in both Gaelic and English! Not until 1854 was heat brought into the sanctuary. Two cast iron stoves were placed at the rear of the church and during church services they were constantly fed with four-foot logs.
Religious Problems Still Simmer
The addition of heat did little to heal the wounds that continued to simmer within the Old Stone Church parish.
In the early 1920’s, with church attendance dropping, a motion was drawn up that would see the congregation merging with the local United Church. The resulting rancor was such that the provincial government interceded. They passed “The Beaverton Presbyterian Church Act” to settle the dispute.
And so, the Old Stone Church struggled on bravely, with diminished congregation and funds.
Stepping into a Time Machine
On a warm September day, your intrepid National Historic Site adventurers arrive at the Old Stone Church. It’s a charming setting, separated from the country road by a handsome stone wall.
We’ve arranged to meet the current caretaker for a tour. In his 80’s, and long-time member of The Old Stone Church, he’s always delighted to come down to tour any visitors who might ask. “There aren’t a lot anymore,” he says. “People today don’t take an interest in old churches.” But he’s grateful for our visit.
He unlocks the church’s heavy wooden door and we step into Canada’s history.
The scent of rigid Scottish Presbyterianism lingers. All unforgiving, straight-baked pews on the ground floor are enclosed by end doors. They remain as they were installed unvarnished. The wooden patina of age glows.
“They were for the more wealthy members of the congregation,’ he says. “They paid a fee to have their own pew.” I ask if I’m allowed to walk up the steps to the minister’s pulpit, and I climb the stairs to this elevated place of distinction.
Looking down on the scene before me, my imagination sweeps back to a time when the church was the lifeblood of a community; when the faithful donned their Sunday best, shined their sole pair of shoes, and set off for a day in the worship of God.
The affluent arrived in horse-drawn carts; most walked, some from a distance of up to ten miles. No mean feat when the winds of February blew bitterly from Lake Simcoe.
I ascend the wooden stairs to the second floor balcony. The pews are open here– no doubt for parishioners of modest means.
It’s an eagle eye view of The Old Stone Church. Beautiful in its simplicity; strength in its fine workmanship; and fortitude in its lack of human comforts.
The scene fills me with a profound sense of admiration for our forebearers—those who struggled against great odds to build our fine country.
In 1991 and long passed out of regular use, The Old Stone Church was designated a National Historic Site. It is described as one of the few early churches in Canada that have survived in a virtually intact condition from its construction.
With maintenance and repair costs significant, the Trustees of the Old Stone Church are grateful for donations to defray these expenses. They can be sent to “The Old Stone Church Maintenance Fund” Box 741, Beaverton Ontario. L0K 1A0.
Church services are still held on the first Sunday of the summer months. The Church is open to the public for viewing on Sunday afternoons in July and August. Other visits are by special arrangement.