The Ruins of St. Matilda's

By Andre Philpot

On January 27th,  1826,  Alexander MacDonnell was appointedthe first Catholic Bishop of Upper Canada.   Over the next years he established "five and thirty Churches and Chapels great and small"  and in so doing really established the Catholic faith west of Quebec.  In that same year, 1826,  he received a gift of land from Peter McGill, owner of the Ironworks,  which would be the site for a fine new church in Marmora.

The gift of land from McGill was put that way,  as a gift,  and to Alexander MacDonnell.  It was the two acres of tranquility across the river from the bustle off the Ironworks.  Under the guidance of Anthony Manahan,  a church and burial yard would be made to fill the needs of the lonely little community.

St Matilda - the saint of wayward children

More than 100 years later,  the beauty of the spot would enchant a tourist spending a summer at the Lodge on Crowe Lake.               W.R. Freeman entitled his unpublished notes "A Short History of Marmora with Pebbles and Twigs from Marble Point"  and "Awe,  at least pervades the quiet spot;  Reverence is paramount."

In 1828,  Manahan supervised the building of what would become the first Catholic Church for many miles around.  It was certainly the first such church in central Upper Canada,  removed from the Loyalist settlements of the lakefront.

It was a small church,  43 by 25 feet,  but substantially built of limestone quarriedfrom a pit only 200 feet away.  On the peak was set a simple iron cross manufactured across the river at the Ironworks.  Freeman would still study the church,  although it was derelict when he wrote in 1946:

St. matilda's north-east corner, c.1900

"The gable roof had a low pitch with something of a Spanish atmosphere about it.  There was a stone chimney in the extreme south-west corner....The interior of the building was plain,  and reflected not only the use of of local material,  but also the manner in which the pioneers lived. 

The ceilingwas lathe and plaster,   and followed the rafters until it approached the apex of the roof,  where it was rounded or curved slightly instead of continuing to the angle of the gable.   The floor was made of wide, clear pine planks about three inched thing"

In all,  the church was "imposing in its simplicity".  Folklore held that the first pews were timbers squared by the adze.  The altar and communion-rail were simple.  A wood stove provided heat and comfort.

At the time,  a wooden bridge spanned the Crowe River running between the churchyard and the industrial village.  The churchyard was separated from the tough little town with its bustle and its fiery heart beating rhythmically with the pumping of the furnace bellows.  To cross to the churchyard was to enter a world of serenity.  Here the village found its soul.

St. Matilda's, Marmora, River drivers John McQuigge, George McQuigge and Enlaw of Campbellford, c 1900

St. Matilda's south west corner, c.1900

wooden crosses placed on the "suspected" grave sites during a special ontario heritage "open Doors" event, 2005.

This very historical cross was manufactured out of pig iron from the Marmora Ironworks.
It was first mounted on the roof peak of the first church built in Marmora in 1825. The old limestone church was located on the west shores of Crowe River near the dam. When the little stone was abandoned in 1874, the cross disappeared for a number of years.It surfaced again and was mounted on the new Separate School roof steeple built by Stanislaus Bertrand in 191.5. For a few more years it disappeared only to surface this time mounted on the white wooden cross at the east end of the Sacred Heart Cemetery grounds.
It was removed from the cross in 1998 and is now permanently mounted in the church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Marmora, Ontario.

The churchyard was across a trail from its graveyard.  One way leads up the cliffside  to Crowe Lake and the other way off to the wilderness,   around to what would now be Norwood. (explaining the naming of "Norwood Road"  which leads around the rock face later cut through to make way for Highway 7)  The graveyard was almost surely used by  the local natives.It may have been blessed by atmosphere as a burial grounds,  but the great sheets and blocks of limestone made burial difficult.  Probably only 30 settlers joined the "unknown slumberers".  Resting in this old cemetery are Shannons (very early settlers), and Alexander McCallum, Great grandfather of Mrs. Elizabeth Feeney He came from Cushindall, county An- trim, Ireland and had located near Deloro on a crown Grant. While on his way with food for men cutting marsh-grass, he became  lost along  the river to Malone and perished. His body was found in the spring, and he was buried in the cemetery.  Another, still sleeping here,is John, son of Laughlin Hughes who assisted in choosing the site for the church. Little did the father know that his own son would be the first one to be interred there. John was drowned in the river, near the church. This would indeed be an impressive service, for the sympathizing settlers would come from miles around on this occasion.

Not a stone's throw from the churchyard,  the settlers found and romanticized an exquisite spring born in the rock ledges above.  Legend tells of a pretty French maiden who was murdered near this spot by a jealous lover.  The lonely traveler would hear sobbing quietly as he approached,  sobbing, sobbing,  sobbing until her  tears could be heard dropping, dropping, dropping and the little brook from the spring became a fretful rushing stream.

Just how a pretty French maiden should have found herself here,  in the middle of nowhere,  with the good fortune to have a lover,  and the bad luck to have a jealous one,  is not explained by the legend.  Mr. Freeman,  however, continues enthusiastically:

St. Matilda's - view from dam

"Should you go there and listen carefully, you may hear the plaintive call of a strange unknown bird, sighing and sobbingas dida beautiful French maiden, or should you pass during a warm gentle shower, you may actually see the evergreens shedding their crystal tears over the remains of the forgotten settlers."

During its first three decades,  the congregation at the little "Sacred Heart" Church was lead only by visiting priests.  Reverend Michael Brennan arrived at Belleville as its first resident priest in 1829.  His first circuit included most of Prince Edwardand Hastings Counties,  and visits to Marmora were said to be annual.  Father Brennan baptized and married many in the Village,  includingElizabeth (McCallum) Gillen,  born on January 7, 1833. 

Although its founders and parishioners were Catholic,  the little church and its yard played host to all ministries.  Its establishment had,  after all,  been a community effort,  organized by Manahan,  supported by the Ironworks and all its workers.

The visits of Methodist preachers and exhorters were memorable public events.  Henry Ryan,  an Irishman,  was assigned to "the Bay of Quinte circuit"  in 1805,  and preached there and later throughout Upper Canada until 1834.

"They would ride into town,  put their horses in at an inn,  lock arms, and go singing down the streets a stirring ode,  beginning with 'Come let us march to Zion's Hill "  What ensured was often part evangelical rally,  part campground hijinks and part roadshow.

Ryan was sturdy and formidable as befits a man who was sometimes both preacher and bouncer.  He was said to have strength enough to eject the unruly and wit enough to seldom need that strength.

"Some wicked fellows are said to have asked him if he had heard the news. "What news?",  he asked.  "Why the devil is dead!"

Then said he,  looking around on the company, "He has left a great many fatherless children."

Anna Hughes McCollum wrote: 

"It may not be amiss to give a short history of the first headstone placed in the old cemetery. My father's family came to this country leaving my father and two sisters in Ireland. They came later and shortly afterwards one of the sisters died and was buried in what is now called the Protestant (Common) Cemetery. In those days all denominations were buried there. Shortly afterwards my Father, Patrick Hughes, who was living in Belleville at the time, cut the stone and had it shipped to the first Catholic Cemetery. His sisters body was to be taken and reburied. My father having died it was never done and thus the stone laid for years where it was placed until it was removed to the cemetery of the Sacred Heart Church. (Note: In 1952 a restoration committee returned the stone to St. Matilda's)

By 1828,   an organized circuit was established by Reverend John Carroll to include the Irontown.  The Methodist revival was an extraordinary and protracted event.  It lasted as long as enthusiasm could be maintained.  The success of the campground technique is reflected in the 1871 Canadian census which shows the Methodists well in the lead among religious denominationswith 28.5 per cent of the population,  followed by Anglican,  Presbyterians and Catholics,  in that order.

"Our only trouble",  a Methodist report of 1901 would say,  "is that the field is too extensive to enable us to garner the fruit as it ripens."

Within Marmora,  however,  Catholicism would continue to predominate.  In 1875,  a fine new brick church was built across the river on Bursthall Street,  on the site of the present day Catholic Church.   The little stone church fell into ruins.   Over the next decades,  itwas to become a hangout for the loggers who drove logs down the Crowe River.  Their names were scratched on the old plaster walls.  The windows were broken an the roof leaked,  then fell in.


Writing in the 1940's,  W.R. Freeman concluded,  "Friendly cedars stand within and around the old church for companionship and some more sturdier than others have grown up through two of the remaining windows.  Above the windows,  they clasp the masonry as if they were preventing the wall from falling.  Are they doing this in silent appeal for us to awaken from our slumbers and rebuild this historic gem?"   If so,  the appeal failed.  The walls of the little church are all but gone.      A portion only has been capped and stabilized and stands as a monument to the softer side of life in Upper Canada's Pioneer Irontown.

st. Matilda's, above the dam, with log boom on right

St. Matilda's - Painting by Anne Philpot

The Little Church -    An Appeal to Clean up                 Marmora Herald  August 1964 By J. D. Cumming

HISTORY is the record of past deeds, triumphant or venal, inscribed in stone or metal or wood and more permanently in the printed word. Its interpretation should be based an facts, if the truth is to prevail, so for this reason we are correcting some errors in a recent article in the Peterborough Examiner on the restoration of the 'Little Church' as it is known, at Marmora. In addition, we make an earnest appeal for an immediate effort to save from final destruction the finest relic of ecclesiastical history in Central Ontario, While inaccurate, we must commend this article for its beneficial effect in drawing attention to the pitiful vandalism wreaked on the Little Church since it was restored in 1952 after one hundred years of neglect. During that year a small group led and financed almost entirely by the Parish Priest, Father J. A. O'Neill, but supplemented by the donations of other lovers of Canadiana, met and drew up plans to' save what was left of this pioneer Catholic Church on the west bank' of the Crowe River, north of No. 7 Highway. This effort was none too soon. While a prominent local mining Company was accredited with this work it is regrettable to' report, and only in justice to those who did initiate the work and who made donations of time, money and materials, that they had no significant part whatever in this restoration


A romantic feature of the churchyard is the Haunted Spring high on the cliffside.   A few feet above the Haunted Spring the lime- stone cliffs have been etched out and undercut by the waters of prehistoric Lake Iroquois. When the valley of the St. Lawrence River was blocked by the thousands of feet of glacial ice during the last Ice Age, perhaps ten thousand years ago, the present Lake Ontario was raised several hundred feet and its northern margin, lapped the limestone cliffs overlooking the Little Church.



During these frigid eons,  the waters rose until they overflowed and reached the ocean via Rome, New York and the Hudson River valley. Finally, of course, the great Ice Sheet receded, the St. Lawrence valley reopened and the waters lowered to about the level of the present Lake Ontario. As might be expected, as ground-water levels recede everywhere in Ontario, the famous overflowing 'Haunted Spring', that used to refresh the travelers and teams from Marmora to Marble Point on what was then a busy roadway, is dry now, except in early Spring. The old roadway, shaded and overhung by trees is still visible. The repaired walls of the spring are still intact but the rust-proof screen with which it was covered has been stolen or shall we say removed.


In a shaded glade the Committee moved and re-erected the ancient tombstone of Margret Hughes who died in 1825. We are both pleased and surprised to note that this pathetic memorial to a long-gone child has thus far escaped defacement by the brainless.


The roadway from the Clubhouse to the Little Church needs a very little work to overcome some of its rather terrifying aspects and would cost practically nothing, However this is essential as a safety measure as it overlooks almost too closely the Crowe River gorge. The grounds are not in bad shape. The grass has been cut but the sumacs and brush are encroaching and a breezeway should be re-cut to the river. Around the Church itself a 'few hours work with a chain saw and a bonfire, burned at a properly safe time would work wonders. Now it is a dangerous firetrap of fallen cedars and rubbish. A bee of two or three hours work would clean this up and be fun.


We do wish to commend Mr. Lorne Watson, contractor, of Campbellford, for using the Committee's design and donating the artistic wooden plaque on which is carved the name and essential dates. It is being rapidly defaced by the ever-present vandals who have cut and scratched their initials on it. Otherwise it is in good repair, but needs scraping, cleaning and protective varnish.


Twelve years ago the three remaining window arches were thoroughly grouted and pointed up with neat cement and the walls were also. It is heartbreaking to  see that two of these arches have been destroyed and it could not possibly have been other than deliberate. The third window arch in the centre of the east or river wall is still standing although stones have been pried Ioosee and it can hardly last more than a year or two at most even if not tampered with further. This is the window with the two crossed trees growing through it and these now constitute one of the main dangers. Once this final arch goes,   you have in effect a heap of rubble and the Little Church enshrining 140 years of quiet local history will only be a memory. If that is what Marmora wants-just a memory- they will soon have it,   but if there is any reverence for the past, any thought of retaining one of the authentic links with Marmora's romantic early history and its pioneers who have long since been laid to rest quiet nook, something must be done among the maples and cedars of that at once, and that means during 1964. Once again a plan is available. It will cost very little. Most of it can be done by volunteer workers and the balance by a very little money and a good stone mason -but time is of the essence.

Note from an unknown author,  written  after 1988

"It is noteworthy to remember that the Ironworks manager, Anthony Monaham lived in a beautiful home in Marmora from 1825 until 1830. The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the material and workmanship of the day. Later that same home belonged to Doctor Herbert & Margaret Parkin from 1950 until after his retirement in 1988. It is ironic that two of Marmora's earliest buildings built under Anthony Manahan's leadership - St Matilda's Church and the large residential home on Forsyth Street -  are still part of our history.
I believe we are still blessed as a small concerned village. Blessed by a cross. A steel cross forged from the iron ore abundantly available from the nearby local mining pits. This is the only known remaining structural piece of steel that is visible in our village to-day. This cross was once mounted on the gabled end of St Matida Church and was later restored and now hangs directly above the double sliding doors to the nave of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.

Doug Lynch discusses repairs with Historical Foundation member, Andre Philpot

An article from the Marmora Herald dated 16 August, 1962 wrote -  " It has been reported that during the past couple of weeks some person or persons have been removing the stones from the old Catholic Church on the west bank of Crowe River. While there is not too much remaining of the old stone church, it is still regarded as one of the historic relics of early Marmora".

To-day if you look carefully around our village, you will observe a few private homes that attest to this act of vandalism. As a result of this it was decided to cap the remaining stone walls in 1964. The work was spearheaded by Father WaIter Healey and Vincent Lynch and carried out under James Cummings leadership.

Years ago river drivers and loggers destroyed most of the remaining stone walls of the little church - this led to the local residences hauling away the fallen and broken stones. Now boot-loggers and drinkers throw their empties at the stone walls and Doug Lynch hauls away the broken glass beer bottles.
Under Doug's  care and with the help from members of the Knights of Columbus, they yearly clear the brush around the church and cemetery.  Doug has directed that funds be allotted on maintaining the church and its property. Over $9,000.00 has been spent in the' past few years on beautify the church."

Father Healey & Father Keyes at St. Matilda's Church

1976 St. Matilda's, Marmora, school mass with Father Scanlon

Area where wooden bridge landed at the churchyard

Karen Paranuik wrote:   As kids it was a scary place especially around Halloween! Then it was said that the young native girl came out once a year and went down to the river and washed her face! Some would say they saw her!!