PROVIDENCE BAY—The Manitoulin Community of Christ Church is celebrating its storied past on the Island with a special weekend-long event in September and all are encouraged to attend.
Pastor Weston Leeson is the unofficial history keeper of the Community of Christ Church and spoke to The Expositor about its beginnings on Manitoulin.
The first church, then called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was built along Holiday Haven Road (as it is now called) near the shores of Lake Manitou in the Manitowaning area.
“It started in a family home in Clover Valley and then moved to Lake Manitou,” Pastor Leeson explained.
Missionaries, typically hailing from southwestern Ontario, first came to Manitoulin in 1898, including Missionary John Shields. Some of the first families who joined included the McGillis, Lockeyer, Bryant, Coe, Vanzant and Corbett families.
The first baptized member of the church was Margaret Charlton on August 18, 1901 by a G.E. Tomlinson, missionary.
In 1907 the church branched out, starting a congregation in Little Current that year and eventually building a church in 1940. (The church was located on Campbell Street West in Little Current and when it was decommissioned as a church, was sold and transformed into a gym but later caught fire, in 2014, a result of the arson of the former curling club located next door.)
In 1908, a Sandfield group was formed and led by Pastor Gordon, meeting in homes in the community and in 1916, officially formed a congregation. Sandfield, Pastor Leeson noted, was unique in that many of its members came by boat, using Lake Manitou to help spread the word. The roads in and around Sandfield at the time were little more than carriage trails, so boat was a more convenient method of travel.
One year later, in 1917, a Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints congregation was formed in the Slash area of Assiginack Township. The first missionary in the Slash was Elder R. Howlett.
“Brother Howlett went through many hardships, for example having many rotten eggs thrown at him,” a history of the Slash branch states. “At that time, travelling was difficult as the Slash was a newly settled area. Roads were scarce and horse and wagon or walking were the only means of travel. Brother Howlett was known to have taken off his shoes and wade through water in order to visit homes.”
In 1921, many members of the Sandfield branch moved to Providence Bay—including the Arnolds and the Beaudins—as the mill there had brought them work. They began to meet at the Berry Hall, eventually buying the undertaker’s house which was turned into a church in 1923 and the congregation still meets in this same location.
In 1925, the Sandfield branch officially became the Providence Bay branch. That same year, a big conference was held that included the head of the church and all the Island members.
In 1952, Silver Water also built a church that included a few members, mostly the Noble and James families. It was located where Stop 540 Restaurant is today.
Manitoulin’s first missionary, John Shields, started with a Manitowaning group, but was responsible for seeing the congregations grow to the Slash, Sandfield, Silver Water and even as far as Cockburn Island and on to Drummond Island in Michigan.
The branches were most successful at the first part of the century, with many of them shuttering by the 1950s. The Lake Manitou branch closed in 1952; Silver Water in 1955; the Slash in 1984; and Little Current in 2010.
“Providence Bay remains Providence Bay,” Pastor Leeson said, noting that people are travelling from across Manitoulin to attend services there.
“Four years ago, we rebuilt the church basement, making it wheelchair accessible,” he added. “The church is entirely different from those early days as an undertaker’s house.”
Pastor Leeson said the Community of Christ’s celebration “is one of a journey of the people—a faith journey of the people.”
“We’re trying to bring back the people the church had over the years,” Pastor Leeson said. “We’re not asking for people to come back to church, but to recognize their family’s history in it.”
The celebrations get underway on Friday, September 8 with registration, finger foods, music and entertainment at the Providence Bay Hall. Saturday, September 9 will begin with a breakfast from 8 to 10 am at the curling club with a worship service getting underway at 11 am in the hall followed by lunch in the hall. After lunch, head to the nearby Community of Christ Church for a walk through the Community of Christ’s Island history. On Sunday, August 10 there will be another breakfast followed by a worship service, lunch and a blessing for the journey home.
Registrants are asked to pay $50 which includes food for the weekend.