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April 27, 2007

Looking Back at Rural Churches


In Chisholm Township, like other rural areas, a person with an eye to history can see significant changes over time.  Before improved transportation and shifting demographics, Chisholm had many active churches as social and religious activity centres.  For efficiency, like schools, post offices and stores, many of the churches have closed or are only used occasionally while church populations shift to larger venues (on the other hand a growing Amish population is thriving in Chisholm). 

Chisholm has had two small communities over the years.  The lumber village of Fossmill as recorded in the book The Fossmill Story lasted from 1924 to 1950 and disappeared.  The other community was Chiswick on the 10th Concession (now Chiswick Line) between side road 20 and 25 - now Golf Course Road and Gravelle Road (after Father J. Gravelle). 

St. Louis de France Catholic Church, Chiswick Line, Chisholm Township c.1961.  Chisholm History Book.

Chiswick originally had a primarily French Catholic population that worshiped in Bonfield until 1895 when a small chapel was built in Chiswick.  In 1901 Chiswick and Corbeil (where the Quints were born) had missions out of Levesqueville (now Astorville) where a large congregation was established with its own priest Antoine Astor.  In 1904 a full sized church (St. Louis de France) with an attached sacristy was started in Chiswick and finished in 1912.  The three remarkable Chisholm history books record the story of the church in detail. 

When the number of Catholic families rose to 90 a priest was allocated.  Father Joseph Gravelle became the first priest of St. Louis de France in 1920 and had a remarkable 30 year career.  Father Gravelle also played a major role in the religious life in nearby Fossmill establishing a church and eventually a separate school there.  In a series of articles on the CNRs “Algonquin Route” through the north side of Algonquin Park I wrote an article on his remarkable career (check May 4, 2001 on my website). 

During Father Gravelle’s stay the church was improved and a Presbytery was built for the priest.  In 1930 the Sisters of the Assumption came to teach in a new school and Father Gravelle oversaw the building of a convent. 

Father Gravelle in his retirement produced a remarkable genealogical record of over a million names of Ottawa Valley families that is available in the National Archives (MG25-9271 pending finding aid 1180.  He also wrote a remarkable early history of Chisholm as recorded in the first Chisholm history book.  Father Gravelle left in 1951.  Several short term priests did good work and the school was expanded. 

St. Henri Church, Grand Desert, Bonfield Township, Greg Boxwell photo.

Father M. Gaudreault, who grew up in the nearby community of Grand Desert where the St. Henri Catholic Church was located, was the priest from 1968 to 1973 and made some significant changes before moving to Corbeil.  The last full time priest was Father F. Proulx who I met on a couple of occasions at Chisholm Council meetings when I was on Council.  He served for 19 years until his death in 1997. 

The school was closed and moved to where the current Chisholm Municipal Office is located and the old school called the Gravelle Centre was used for various activities and was eventually bought by the Township as a Community Centre before being sold to become a family residence.  The convent was sold as well and the priest’s house was rented. 

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to former Chiswick resident Ted Delorme on another topic when he mentioned that he and his daughter Elaine Conrad had visited the church because it was going to be taken down.  Coincidentally, Elaine taught at Chiswick School and was Principal when it was moved to the Municipal Office site.  I was visiting the Municipal Office about the same time and saw the church pews being removed.  The next time I went by, the church was gone and a fascinating era had come to an end. 

The Grand Desert Catholic Church 

A few months ago Grand Desert resident Greg Boxwell sent me an email telling me about the possible demise of the Grand Desert Church.  He emailed me again just as the Chisholm church was removed to send me a photo of the church and to tell me that it was gone as well.  The St. Henri cemetery remains on the church property and the St. Louis de France cemetery is located just down the road from the church site, and both will be cared for.  In both cases parishioners have relocated to churches in Bonfield, Astorville and Powassan while the great service of the churches above becomes a memory. 

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