Calvin Presbyterian Church & LaGuerre Cemetery
Situated on a small hill rising above the southwest bank the LaGuerre River, the ruins of Calvin Presbyterian Church can be seen when you are a short distance south of Quesnel Side Road as you look west from LaGuerre River Road . The church and cemetery can be accessed by taking a rough path through the pasture behind the barns on the Irving Brothers Farm, 1498 Chemin Rivière de LaGuerre. If you are planning a visit, be prepared with suitable footwear and also for the short hike from the farm yard to the church.
The church and the cemetery are now in a sorry state and have suffered tremendously from neglect. Photos from as late as 1970 indicate that the Gothic Revival style church still had its roof and that the cemetery was still reasonably well maintained. In 2002, little more than the fieldstone walls of the church are left. The walls continue to crumble. The steeple, roof, doors, and window frames have mostly disintegrated. The floors of the church have disappeared and seeds from near by shrubs and trees have taken root. Some of the lath and plaster on the interior walls is still just visible. Although a good waist-high chain link fence surrounds the church and cemetery, the cemetery is seriously in need of more attention than it receives. The Irving Brothers try to keep the grass and shrubs at a manageable level and most of the grave stones accessible. Keeping the vegetation under control is no doubt an on-going battle. A battle that's not helped by randomly placed gravestones, gravestones that have sifted from frost, rough ground, and invasive plants and weeds.
So how did Calvin Presbyterian Church and LaGuerre Cemetery end up in a cow pasture? The story is similar to many communities that have vanished in the Chateauguay Valley and, for that matter, the rest of North America. At one time the site of Calvin Presbyterian Church was centre of a thriving village, known as "Godmanchester Village" or the "Village of LaGuerre". The name "Godmanchester" came from Godmanchester Township to which this spot belonged before St. Anicet Parish was established. The names for "LaGuerre River" and the "Village of LaGuerre" came from François Benoît dit La Guerre who lumbered on the banks of the river at the turn of the 19th Century.
It was in 1820 that Alexander McBain, a businessman from Glengarry County, first established a lumbering and ash business at this site -- spawning the development of the settlement. Soon after McBain began his endeavors, Colonel Davidson and Alexander Ogilvie of Dundee Township built stores, asheries, and wharfs here as well. Godmanchester Village was first surveyed in 1823 and with the addition of later surveys the village was eventually laid out as 154 lots on 160 acres. The Elgin Square site of the church was first set aside by Alexander Ogilvie in 1827. He provided the frame and lumber for the settlers to build a church. That church was never completed -- but the site was established as burial ground in 1828 with the interment of local settler, William MacPherson.
By 1830 the settlement had a population of 82 people comprising 16 families. The community was made up of people with French, Irish, and Scottish heritage. A schoolhouse operated from 1829 to 1846. William Coleman was a local shoemaker. John Herrington was a local cooper. Durham boats , coming from the St. Lawrence River, traveled frequently up the LaGuerre River to bring supplies and carry out potash and lumber. In the early 1830's, John McDonald became the most prominent figure in the community. He married the widow of Alexander McBain, purchased the local stores, purchased 950 acres of land, and in 1837 he built "Rosebank" -- the large sandstone farm house now owned and occupied by the Irving Brothers.
The number interred in LaGuerre Cemetery continued to grow, but the decision and work to build Calvin Presbyterian Church did not come about until 1847. Many Scottish Presbyterian families from Dundee, Godmanchester, St. Anicet and Glengarry were key to establishing the church. These families included the Frasers, Curries, Brodies, Harveys, Fortunes, McGregors, McEdwards, Leslies, Grants, Stewarts, and Watsons.
It seems several factors played in the favour of establishing Calvin Presbyterian Church. One was the growing number of Scottish people who settled in and around LaGuerre. Another relates to what was happening at "home" in the Church of Scotland. In the 1830's and 1840's, the Church of Scotland saw conflict and change as the result of liberal, moderate, conservative, and evangelical movements. In Scotland, these movements helped to establish new branches of the Presbyterian Church. The philosophies of these new branches of the Church of Scotland migrated to North America. Meanwhile, in the Chateauguay Valley, from the 1820's, residents were exposed to a greater variety of religious beliefs. It was common for people to attend meetings organized by traveling preachers and to attend churches of other denominations. Thus, the changes in the Church of Scotland and exposure to new religious ideas swayed the area families to establish a church that reflected their needs and expectations.
In 1847, the first foundation stone of "The Free Presbyterian Church of LaGuerre" was laid by John Leslie. With the help of the other founding families, the church was completed in 1851. John Fraser of Dundee donated the first communion vessels. Simple purple and yellow gothic stained-glass windows graced the building. The church provided services in English and Gaelic. It was with some disagreement between members of the congregation that an organ was eventually installed.
Ironically, it was during the construction of the church that the Village of LaGuerre began its decline. What caused this? Generally, it is attributed to two reasons. One was construction of the Beauharnois Canal in 1849. The canal required that dams be built to bring up the level of the water on the lake and as a result the lower parts of the Village of LaGuerre become marshy. Residents started to relocate. The other change was the new replacement for Durham boats. Durham boats had been able to navigate many of the area's small rivers. These boats were being replaced by steam-powered vessels capable of only navigating the lake. So the wharfs of LaGuerre became useless in favour of the deeper water found less that five miles away at St. Anicet's lake shore. The buildings that made up LaGuerre Settlement were gradually abandoned, left to erode, and then to disappear, leaving only "Rosebank" and Calvin Presbyterian Church in their memory.
Although the membership was never large, Calvin Presbyterian Church continued to be used for regular services until 1931. The church was among those that were part of the 1925 amalgamation of the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches into the Canadian United Church. Services were held with some frequency until 1939 -- and the last service held in 1941. The building was then used infrequently by local community groups until the contents were dispersed. Burials in the cemetery took place until 1948 -- the last burial was for Harry Stewart.
____, Burials in Zion Church, Dundee Quebec 1833-1980, Reprinted by Alex Fraser, 1998.
Philippe Decloître, "From the Ruins of La Guerre: Present View on a Lost Pioneer Village", Chateauguay Valley Historical Society Journal, 1997.
R. J. Fraser, As Others See Us: Scots of the Seaway Valley, Beamsville Press, 1959. Reprinted Alex Fraser, 2001.
G. A.Rogers, Calvin Church Cemetery List, 1970.
G. A.Rogers, "18 Pioneer Cemeteries", Chateauguay Valley Historical Society Journal, 1969.
G. A. Rogers, "Records of Kirk Session of Laguerre", Chateauguay Valley Historical Society Journal, 1972.
Photographs and text by Ken Steffenson, October 2002.
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Last Modified: 17/11/02