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Valuing Our History

by Stephen Thorning

Plans for new Kenilworth Catholic church announced in 1902

The Roman Catholic church has had a presence in Wellington County since the early days of settlement.

The first congregation, St. Bartholomew’s in Guelph, dates to the founding of that town in 1827.

As settlement progressed, Catholic officials tended to locate their churches in the larger towns, with a few exceptions. The churches at Macton and Ostic are two of those. Members of the Jesuit Order established another rural church at Kenilworth in 1852.

Arthur Township was then in its early stages of settlement, relatively remote from established towns such as Fergus, due to poor roads. Many of the first settlers were quite poor, and were drawn to Arthur Township by the low price of land. Among them were a number of Irish Catholics, and a sprinkling of German Catholics.

Father John Holzer, the indefatigable Jesuit missionary who was a key figure in the early religious history of Wellington County, celebrated the first mass at Kenilworth, and Jesuit missionaries, based at Guelph, remained in charge of the church at Kenilworth during the 1850s and 1860s.

The Jesuits had established a presence in Arthur Township in the 1840s, a decade before that first church at Kenilworth, celebrating mass in private residences and school houses. In most years, there were only three or four services per year. The resources of the church, and especially its manpower, were stretched to the limit.

That first church at Kenilworth served the whole township in its early years, until new structures went up at Arthur village in 1857 and Mount Forest in 1863. Another Roman Catholic church was built at the edge of Mount Forest in 1848, but fire claimed it before construction was completed.

With a brief interlude in the early 1860s, the Jesuit order’s missionary priests remained in charge of the churches in Arthur Township until 1870. During the 1870s, resident priests were assigned to Arthur and Mount Forest. The old log church at Kenilworth closed in 1870, condemned as structurally unsound though it was only 18 years old. The bishop divided the Kenilworth pastorate between the Arthur and Mount Forest parishes.

Some three decades later, Kenilworth was a beneficiary of the expansionist policy of Bishop T.J. Dowling, who had taken over as Bishop of Hamilton in 1889. Dowling was born in Ireland in 1840, but had grown up in Hamilton. Unlike his predecessors, who had generally been officious and remote, Dowling sought whenever possible to mix socially with his priests and members of their congregations.

A talented vocalist, he was insulted if he was not invited to sing at any function, religious or secular, where he was present. Dowling was also a poet, though not a very talented one, and often recited one or two of his compositions at public events.

More importantly, Dowling was determined to expand the sphere of the Roman church. He set up a number of new parishes during the 1890s, and after 1900 he decided that it was prudent to re-establish the parish at Kenilworth. With immigration to Canada on the rise in the late 1890s, he saw new churches as a necessity.

He also encouraged some churches, particularly German ones in Waterloo County, to conduct all their affairs in the native language of most of the parishioners.

In June 1902, on one of his frequent tours through the diocese, he arranged a celebration of the re-opening of the parish at Kenilworth. He had arrived in Arthur that morning, a Tuesday, after spending the previous day at Drayton.

Father Doherty of Arthur drove him in a carriage to Kenilworth.

A mile from the hamlet a formal procession formed up, led by 16 men on horseback, who were followed by the Arthur brass band.

The parade proceeded through an arch of evergreens to the site where the new church would soon rise. Various religious dignitaries, including the priests from Mount Forest, Ayton, and Drayton, were already seated on a wooden pavilion constructed for the occasion, having arrived earlier by train.

Local residents viewed the occasion as an unofficial public holiday. Hundreds of people were present, mostly Catholics, but with a generous sprinkling of Protestants. Bishop Dowling, of course, was the principal speaker. He expressed his delight at being in Kenilworth, and his pleasure at the large crowd.

The Bishop explained that one of his goals was to increase the number of priests and parishes in his diocese. He expressed his thanks for the co-operation of the priests at Arthur and Mount Forest, who would both lose some of their congregation to the new one. Dowling, apparently, had gone to great lengths to sooth their ruffled feathers. The loss of members was significant for both the Arthur and Mount Forest churches.

Because the first steps taken in forming the new parish had been taken in June, Dowling informed those present that he would name the new church The Sacred Heart. He also formally announced that Father Kehoe, the popular priest at Drayton, would be transferred to Kenilworth.

Brief remarks by the other priests followed Bishop Dowling’s address. Then Martin Goetz, a wealthier member of the new parish, announced that he would donate $640 to the building fund, and a further $100 for a bell.

At the conclusion of the formal proceedings, Bishop Dowling took more than an hour to meet the members of the parish individually. He spoke to members of most of the 125 families who would be part of the new parish. It was an unusual step for a bishop to take in that era, when few Catholics had spoken personally and informally with their bishop.

Everyone was impressed with the openness and friendly informality of the man, who, though he was 62 years old, seemed to have the energy and enthusiasm of a man 20 years younger. Dowling would serve as bishop until his death in 1924, though poor health impeded his work during his last decade.

 The big day at Kenilworth ended with a picnic lunch. The event had stirred enthusiasm for the new church and for the busy year ahead.

The previous day, Bishop Dowling had been in Drayton. There he received a petition from members of the local parish who were upset that Father Kehoe would be transferred. Father Kehoe had guided the closure of the Catholic church on Concession 8 of Peel in the mid 1890s, and its subsequent combination with the Drayton church, forging the two into a single, strong parish. Kehoe was immensely popular at Drayton, and his flock did not wish to lose him.

In reply, Bishop Dowling stated that he was very pleased to see the fidelity of the flock at Drayton to their pastor. He would like to comply with their desire to retain Father Kehoe. He likened the priest to a soldier, who is ever ready to “take up quarters where his general believes that his services will be of the greatest use.”

The general good of the Church must be considered as more important than particular preferences, continued the Bishop. He had no intention of changing his mind in moving Father Kehoe to Kenilworth.

Bishop Dowling told reporters that he intended to proceed immediately in securing plans for a new church so that construction could begin as soon as possible.

The new building was ready for use in 1903.

By then there plans under way for a new separate school at Kenilworth. But those are stories for another time.

 

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