Several churches in Wellington County are marking a century and a half of service this year.
Among those is Knox Church in Ospringe, Erin Township. Never a large congregation, Knox has managed to survive the changes that have claimed more than a score of rural churches in Wellington.
Back in the 1830 to 1860 period it was not unusual for church services to be held in bar rooms and hotels. The Ospringe Church probably holds the record in that regard: the congregation gathered in a hotel regularly for its first four years.
Though it has been a Presbyterian Church for a century and a quarter, the Ospringe Church originated with a group of Congregationalists. Though largely forgotten today, the Congregational Church was of some significance in the early history of Wellington County, particularly in Guelph, Eramosa, and Erin Townships. Then it fell into decline late in the nineteenth century. The remaining Congregationalists joined the new United Church when it was formed in 1925 as a union of Canadian Methodists and a majority of Canadian Presbyterians.
But back in the 1850s, the Congregationalists were active, establishing a handful of churches in the county. Rev. Enoch Barker came to Eramosa Township as minister of the Speedside Church in 1855, itself established 10 years earlier. He also preached regularly in Caledon, and therefore was a regular traveller on the Guelph-Orangeville Road.
Rev. Barker frequently stopped at Tom Fielding’s Anglo-American Hotel in Ospringe, at the north corner of the Second Line (later Highway 25) and the Orangeville Road that became Highway 24. Fielding suggested that the reverend gentleman conduct services in Ospringe when he could, and offered the hotel’s second-floor banquet room for the services.
Fielding did all he could to spread the word for the first service, held on Jan. 7, 1858. It set the tone for future services: loud imbibers in the bar room below punctuated the services with their laughter and ribald stories, only to be drowned out with the robust singing of the faithful.
Services continued on a somewhat irregular schedule, and usually on weekdays, attracting a regular following of Congregationalists, converts, and others who liked the close proximity of the religious service to their own homes.
By 1861 several of the regulars decided that they should have a proper church. Construction began in 1862, on land owned by the Webb family on the Second Line, southeast of the intersection at Ospringe. The agreement was that there would be no charge so long as the land continued to be used for church purposes.
The congregation was a small one, and they used ingenuity to put up the building. Farmers donated lumber and other materials. Much of the labour was donated as well, supplemented with hired skilled men. Fielding gave them board at no charge in his hotel while they worked.
Members of the Ospringe Church had an ecumenical outlook, and they freely offered the building to all denominations, though it remained officially a Congregational Church. Money remained scarce: the church did not have permanent seating until 1873.
Difficulties for the church appeared in during the 1870s. The Congregational Church suffered from lack of funds and insufficient ministers to serve all their churches. Ospringe was by then part of a Mission Station based at Everton. Unable to count on the services of a regular minister, the Ospringe adherents decided to affiliate with the Presbyterian Church in Erin in 1876. The arrangement became permanent a year later. Rev. McInnis was the first Presbyterian minister to serve the Ospringe church. He remained only a year, and the pulpit remained vacant for a year after his departure. The next minister, Rev. Robert Fowlie, stayed for 31 years, until 1911.
It was during his term that the congregation decided to replace the frame church. Though barely a quarter century old, the members of the church considered it rustic and totally inadequate. One account described it as “uncomfortable and dilapidated.” As well, the congregation had grown since the church became affiliated with the Presbyterians, and crowding was now a problem.
The Presbytery approved the plans for a new building early in 1888. The congregation purchased a lot from George Anderson for the new building. As with the older structure, volunteers provided some of the labour, but major contracts were let for bricklaying and carpentry. Dave Waddell, the Ospringe blacksmith, provided the decorative iron work. James Kirkwood acted as the project manager for the job.
The cornerstone was laid for the new building at a ceremony on July 2, 1888, in connection with the church’s annual picnic. The building fund had by then raised $1,400 in pledges, and the picnic itself generated $140. A mortgage for $500 was all that was required to cover the costs. The location was an elevated one, requiring a set of steps up from the road and a sidewalk across the lawn to the door. The building immediately became one of the landmarks of Erin.
As so often happens with churches, the activity surrounding construction generated a great deal of enthusiasm in the congregation. The women formed a Ladies Aid group, and in 1891 the youth of the church organized a Young People’s group. That same year the church constructed a driving shed. When the congregation moved into its new building, William Webb demolished the old church.
The congregation voted overwhelmingly in favour of buying an organ in June 1890. Some Presbyterians did not approve of organs in churches, but Ospringe avoided the ugly controversy that crippled some other congregations over the issue.
In 1892, there was a formally organized Sunday School, under the direction of William McTavish. Rev. Robert Fowlie deserved much of the credit for the prosperous state of the church. With duties at both Ospringe and Erin village, he was a busy man.
Old age and failing health forced Rev. Fowlie’s retirement in 1911. His successor, Rev. John Lindsay, took over and remained until 1925. His salary was $1,200 per year, a good income in 1911. The cost was split between Knox in Ospringe and Burns Church in Erin, with a third of it the responsibility of Ospringe.
At the time of the church union in 1925 there was little enthusiasm at Ospringe for combining with the Methodists. The vote was 19 in favour, 42 against joining. Though the issue was hotly argued elsewhere, only 60% of the Ospringe members of the church voted.
There were several changes and improvements through the following decades. Electricity lit the building in 1944. A new roof went on in 1949, and three years later an oil furnace replaced the smoky coal and wood furnace.
The provincial government rebuilt and widened Highway 24 in 1953. That cost the church its front lawn. A new concrete entrance and steps replaced the old ones. The small steeple, always a maintenance headache, was removed in 1963. The last of the big projects was a renovation of the basement, with a new kitchen, in 1975. That project made the work involved with the church’s popular beef dinners much easier.
The church held a centennial celebration for the present building on July 2, 1988, 100 years to the day after the laying of the cornerstone. It featured a pig barbecue and garden party. Dozens of former members returned for the day.
Knox Church in Ospringe never was a major church, but it has filled a role well for its community.
It continues to thrive in an era of declining religious involvement that has claimed at least a score of rural churches in Wellington County.