St. James Church Franktown Oldest in Ottawa Valley, by Howard Morton Brown, Carleton Place Canadian, 26 January, 1961

“The Humble Petition of the Inhabitants of Beckwith sheweth that we are desirous of a Place of Divine Worship and not having the means to Erect a suitable Place we humbly beg of your Excellency to take it into your consideration to grant the King’s Store Beckwith for a Church of the Established Religion of England.”

These words related the first steps toward the erection of Lanark County’s oldest existing church building, one which apparently is the oldest structure in Ontario’s Ottawa Valley to have been preserved in substantially its original form and in use as a church.

Franktown Inn Served As Church

The Rev. Michael Harris, M.A., on a winter day in his fourth year in the new Perth settlement of Upper Canada, scanned the eighty-two names attached to the petition that had been circulated among the Anglican men of Beckwith township.  To the Lieutenant Governor’s military secretary at York he wrote:

“At the request of the Inhabitants of the Township of Beckwith I forwarded the enclosed petition for His Excellency’s consideration, to request your interests with him to forward so desirable an object as that which the petition contains.  I am in the habit of performing Divine Service there once a month, and there is no place suitable for the purpose, therefore am compelled to make use of the Tavern which you will agree with me is not the most proper place.

If His Excellency should grant their petition the people have pledged themselves not only to take care of it but to finish it off for Divine Worship.”

In the centre of the same township the body of emigrants from the Scottish Highlands had their Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Dr. George Buchanan, who in response to their request had arrived from Scotland in the summer of the previous year.  Pat Nowlan’s tavern stood on the north side of the present village of Franktown.  It already had the distinction of having served as overnight accommodation for a Governor General of Canada and his travelling party as well as for holding Church of England services.  As a lesser distinction its owner also had been convicted of selling spirits in illegal quantities at his tavern.  Near it in the present village was the King’s Store, a government warehouse from which for several years farming supplies had been issued to new settlers.  On the east side of the warehouse an area equaling about the present size of the town of Carleton Place had been surveyed as a town site.  It had been portioned out in the past two years in town lots of 25 acres each by Lieut. Colonel James H. Powell, Perth district settlement superintendent.  Most of the town lot holders were his Irish compatriots, members of the Church of England.

But the government storehouse in Beckwith was no longer in active use.  Neither were the sites and buildings of the government’s main settling establishment in Perth, where the superintendent’s office and supply warehouse stood on opposite corners of Harvey and Gore streets.  Six years of military supervision had completed the substantial task of placing the first wave of several thousands of posts-war emigrants and disbanded soldiers as settlers in the woods of Lanark and Carleton counties.

Beckwith’s Anglican Church Founders

Beckwith township settlers who had petitioned in 1823 for the grant of the government building in Franktown for Church of England uses included such names as Austin Allen, George Bailey, John Conboy, Robert and William Davis, several Edwards (George, Thomas, Richard and Francis), James Garland, George, John, Robert and William Griffith, Henry and William Hawkins, Luke and William James, Peter Jones, William Kerfoot and William Kidd.  Others were Leaches (Edward, Thomas, Samuel and William), John, Thomas and William Lummox, Phineas Lowe, John and Dr. George Nesbitt; also Nowlans (John, Luke, Manny and Patrick), and John Poole, Peter and William Salter, James Saunders, Stephen and William Tomlinson, William Willis, Allan and William Wilson.

Original holders of rights to the town block lots of the 600 acre site over which Franktown must have been expected to grow had also received 100 acres farm sites elsewhere in the township.  They included Thomas Armstrong, William Burrows, John Conboy, Daniel Ferguson, Andrew Hughton, three Nesbitts, four Nowlans, Josiah Moss, Owen McCarthy, Thomas Wickham and others.

Government Store Became Church

Permission to use the government store at Franktown as a temporary church was given at once in March of 1823 by Sir Peregrine Maitland, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.  After another three years had passed, the promise of a free grant of ownership of the government building and its cleared six acres of land to the Church of England was obtained from the Lieutenant Governor by the persistent Rev. Michael Harris.  From the spacious rectory which he had built in Perth, now the Inderwick residence on Craig street, he wrote to Sir Peregrine’s secretary, Major Hillier of a more ambitious plan for the Beckwith Church:

“Relative to the sale of the lots in this place (Perth) for the purpose of erecting our church in Beckwith, I do not think we could get more than 100lbs for the one that the Office is built on, and as the Store is falling into decay I am of opinion that no more than 50 or 75 at the outside could be got for it.

A short time ago I brought down with me a person to estimate the expense of repairing the Store in Beckwith and fitting it up in a manner suitable for Divine Service.  He thought the whole of the repairs would amount to seventy or eighty pounds.  He strongly recommended that instead of repairing it we should lay out whatever funds we could collect on a new building, as the money that would be expended on the old one would go far in putting up the walls etc. of a stone Church.  I have since been to Beckwith and have had some conversation with the inhabitants of that township on the subject, who now offer to put the whole of the Stone and Lime on the ground if His Excellency will permit the funds to be appropriated to that purpose, and they would much rather turn the old Store into a temporary Parsonage and to have a good substantial place of Worship.

I have therefore made an enquiry of the probable expense and find that if the people make good their proposals of furnishing the stone and lime we will be able to complete the whole for 200lbs.  You will therefore confer an infinite obligation on me by your using your interest with His Excellency so that we may have the benefit of the Sums arising from the sale of the two lots.  Tho’ I am aware this demand is rather extravagant, still when I consider the benefit likely to accrue from this request to our Church establishments in this part of the Province, I am induced to trespass on Sir Peregrine’s liberality and to request your assistance to further our views.”

A glimpse of monetary values of the times may be had in comparing the estimate of costs of the proposed Beckwith Church with the Rev. Mr. Harris’ own government stipend, which was 200lbs a year.

County’s Oldest Stone Church

The responsive hierarchy at York soon authorized by orders in council the free grant of the government property in Franktown, and also the use of a share of the proceeds of the proposed sales of the government building in Perth, to aid in constructing a suitable building at Franktown for services of the Established Church.  The government’s disposal of its Perth storehouse was allocated to providing help for a plan to build a Perth town market house on Cockburn Island ; and when the sale was made in May, 1827, William Morris, the local Member of Parliament, paid 81lbs for the Perth government store property.  To get the funds for starting the Beckwith Church building the Rev. Mr. Harris had written in early March to the Lieutenant Governor’s secretary, urging the hastening of the sales:

“Relative to the lots to be sold for the Beckwith Church, if the deeds are not completed I would wish for an authority to sell them as the sleighing is nearly over.  Unless we provide the necessary materials now we will not be able to go on with the building till next year.  We have already provided the stone and lime, and are now only awaiting the sale of those lots to make the necessary arrangements.  The Bishop has promised me one hundred pounds but we cannot touch that till the building is enclosed.”

Eventually Mr. Harris was able to write his Bishop, Charles J. Stewart, second Anglican Bishop (1826-37) of Quebec, saying:

“I take the liberty of writing your Lordship respecting the Beckwith Church.  I have got it completely enclosed, with the exception of the windows, which are now ready to be put in.  They are being made at this place (Perth).  In the meantime we are going on with the inside.  In consequence of the roads being bad we are not able to send the windows out.”

Seeking the appointment of a missionary to the Beckwith station, Mr. Harris in a letter of 1827 gives his view of the importance of his area as compared to mission stations reported to be planned at Toronto and St. Catharines :

“From letters I have received from York, I understand that Toronto and St. Catharines are to be opened immediately as mission stations.  I should be sorry to remind His Lordship of his promise concerning Beckwith, but I must be allowed to say that, whatever claim both these places may have as to priority of settlement, still in point of church population I will not give in to them, both put together.  Besides Beckwith is a station where it is not necessary to build up the church but to preserve that where it is already established.”

The Gospel in Foreign Parts

The Rev. Richard Hart in 1829 was appointed to the Franktown station as Beckwith Township’s first resident Anglican clergyman.  He remained until 1833.  He is said to have conducted the first Anglican services in Carleton Place.  On a visit to Smiths Falls in January, 1833, before a Church of England existed there, he is reported to have preached to upwards of one hundred and fifty people, performed a marriage service and baptized fifteen children.  The first Anglican clergyman of the mission of Carleton Place, the Rev. Edward Jukes Boswell, received this appointment in December, 1833, as a “Missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.”  Within a year a Carleton Place Anglican Church of substantial size (75 feet by 34 feet) was near completion of its construction at Bell and Edmund Streets.  Other Ottawa Valley pioneering Anglican clerics of the 1820’s were the Rev. Mr. Byrne at Richmond and the Rev. Amos Ainslie of Hull, the latter also conducting occasional services at points from Bytown to Pakenham and Ramsay.

The community of Franktown, which developed beside Beckwith’s historically notable Anglican Church, was one of the central points of the transportation of a part of the county’s winter shipments of goods to and from Ottawa and Brockville by bush road “trains.”  Soon it was outdistanced in growth by neighbouring villages having advantages of water power and of transportation by water and later by railway.  Numbering about a hundred persons by 1850, and 200 in 1870, Franktown’s residents, like those of other county villages of the time, included such trades and business people as innkeepers, tailors and merchants, blacksmiths, carpenters and sawmill workers, plasterers, masons and cabinetmakers, potash, soap and candle makers, broom makers, milliners and dressmakers, tanners, shoemakers and saddlers and regularly two doctors and one or two clergymen.

District Landmark Destroyed

Standing apart from the village’s several remaining most venerable buildings which have survived their busiest days, the old stone church continues to preserve its little-known high rank of age among Ontario’s few church buildings which have remained in use with few structural changes since the eighteen twenties.  A lamentable loss of a landmark of pioneer Presbyterianism of the Ottawa Valley has occurred in the recent destruction of the honoured stone walls of the Beckwith Seventh Line Gaelic Kirk of 1832 by a new owner.  This loss perhaps may lead to directing a wider deserved recognition to the historical standing of old St. James Church of Franktown, a remaining original monument to the founding fathers of this region of Ontario and to their religious faiths.

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