Visiting Beaverton, Ontario, and its St Andrew's church: memories of a 19th century Gaelic-speaking community

Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
St Andrew's church, Beaverton, Ontario
St Andrew's church, Beaverton, Ontario | Source
Tower detail, St Andrew's, Beaverton
Tower detail, St Andrew's, Beaverton | Source
Map location of Brock Township in Ontario's Durham region
Map location of Brock Township in Ontario's Durham region | Source

19th century church life 'as gaeilge'

This rather striking building in Ontario's Beaverton had a somewhat eventful, early history, after its inception in 1879.

I should clarify, the building's inception dates from 1879. Because St Andrew's congregation dates from 1830.

If you have already guessed that Scottish immigrants formed a substantial proportion of the early membership, you will have guessed correctly: St Andrew has long been regarded as Scotland's patron saint, and, — leaving aside Presbyterians' historic, official disbelief in patron saints — this name was associated with the congregation since the early days of its inception (1).

In fact, this noteworthy, spired building was the third venue used by St Andrew's congregation since 1830. In the intervening years, the Old Stone Church at Beaverton was its meeting place, after the needs of the original congregation outgrew a log building used from 1830. After 1925, some of the congregation, in order to pursue their own specific church vision, went back to the Old Stone Church. In the intervening years, Methodists and Presbyterians locally had decided to amalgamate.

But now for another strong Scottish link.

Maybe you knew that Nova Scotia — particularly Cape Breton — has had Gaelic-speaking communities going back 200 years, despite the intermittent efforts of the Canadian government to stamp out the language (2)? But did you know that Ontario, too, welcomed Scottish immigrants from the Highlands, who continued to use this ancient, Celtic tongue? It is thought that in 1850 what is now Canada had as many as 200,000 Gaelic-speakers. In Ontario's Glengarry county, Gaelic-speakers were particularly concentrated but there were also enough speakers of the language here at Beaverton to warrant regular church services in its medium.

Indeed, on the day that St Andrew's Presbyterian church's new building was opened in 1879, a service was held in Gaelic — as gaeilge (3) —, as well as an English service.

The Old Stone Church, too, was the venue for Gaelic services.

The spire of this impressive structure has been noticeably reworked. If one compares the present spire with the way it appears in old photographs, some of its lines differ to a limited degree. But essentially the church retains its appearance from the way it looked in 1879.

Beaverton forms part of Brock Township, in the Durham region of Ontario. St Andrew's is situated at 523 Simcoe Street.

Notes

(1) Interestingly, the name 'St Andrew's' was subsequently dropped from the church's title in the early 20th century, only to reappear years later. The congregation became part of the United Church in 1925; the full name currently used is St Andrew's United Church.

(2) As late as World War Two, the Canadian government tried to ban the use of Gaelic over public telecommunications — on the very shaky grounds of the potential, supposed vulnerability of its speakers to Nazis — and children caught speaking it at school are known to have been beaten. In time of war, just as culturally intolerant Anglophone officials are known to have made life difficult for French-speakers in the armed forces, so, too, Canada's Gaelic-speaking community was the target for cultural Imperialist prejudice: breathtakingly ironic, given the Highland family heritage of prominent politicians such as William Lyon Mackenzie King and John G. Diefenbaker.

(3) Between the 19th century and contemporary times, the spelling of Scottish Gaelic does vary considerably.

Also worth seeing

In Beaverton itself, interesting sights include the Old Stone Jail and the Beaver River Museum, the former Town Hall and the Library, the Old Stone Church, the Alexander Muir Park, and Beaverton Harbour on Lake Simcoe.

Leaskdale (distance: approx. 29.1 kilometres); the Manse Museum recalls writer Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Uxbridge (distance: approx. 46.9 kilometres) has the Thomas Foster Memorial Temple .

...

How to get there: Air Canada, flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. (Distance from Toronto Pearson Airport to Beaverton : approx. 120.3 kilometres). Beaverton is also served by a GO Bus route. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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