HISTORY OF EBENEZER CHAPEL
The first Ebenezer Primitive Methodist Chapel was a simple one room building constructed by the early settlers. It was made of straw and mud bricks on the present site in 1843 and was appropriately named Ebenezer which means, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” The early settlers came to the Ebenezer area almost two centuries ago and building a church was a priority in their lives. Sunday services in those times brought a proper end to their busy work week. They were able to sing praises of thanks to their God, listen to sermons, and enjoy the fellowship of their neighbours.
Fifteen years later, in 1858, in order to have a more substantial church, proper bricks were made in a kiln by members of the congregation on a farm nearby and this is the church that stands today. The opening of the second church was such a cause for celebration that one of the parishioners presented each of his three daughters with a new hymn book to mark the occasion. The church dedication service’s opening hymn was “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”. Because there was no organ, singing was led by a talented parishioner.
In the beginning, the two rows of pews were divided by a centre aisle, the men sitting on the left, and the women on the right side of the church but that arrangement was changed 24 years later to allow families to sit together. The pulpit was built quite high and the preacher, sitting on the left of the pulpit, would place his red ’kerchief carefully over his head, a protection from the cold in winter, and pesky flies in summer. It is not recorded whether the first lighting in the church was by candles or coal oil lamps. Hydro was installed in 1927.
Down through the ages, the singing of hymns of prayer and praise has always held a large part in religious worship. The choir occupied two rows of seats in a raised space at the rear of the church, the male singers sitting behind the ladies. A few years later, the choir loft was moved to the front of the church. The first organ was purchased in 1888 exactly 30 years after the church was built. The music was so much enjoyed that many gathered on choir practice nights at the church and listened from outside.
Being so busily engrossed during the week with labours to make a living, the Sunday services were social as well as religious and the absence of anyone required immediate investigation for it could only mean sickness or trouble of some kind. However, in one instance, the cause was entirely different. When an investigation ensued by a neighbour as to why one of the widows of the community had not attended church one Sabbath morning she was found scrubbing her floor. Living alone, she had miscalculated the days and thought it was Saturday.
Over the years there have been many sad events and heart-rending tales of the Ebenezer community. The church served as a community centre to celebrate their joys and as a place to bring their sorrows. Within one month in the Spring of 1882, four of the youngest children of one family died of diphtheria. Drowning was a fairly common occurrence, and people often died from diseases that now are easily curable.
Ebenezer Church was also the focal point of the community and many exciting events were held on the property through the week. Tea parties and concerts were held in the church shed which was normally used for horse and buggies of the parishioners in the early days. The entertainment was provided almost solely by the children, with recitations, dialogues, and singing. The ladies of the congregation made the delectable food for the teas and were famous for miles around for their cheesecake pies, bull’s eye candy, railroad and matrimony cakes, and story cakes which were rich with fruit and beautifully iced and trimmed. In later years on beautiful warm summer evenings, Garden Parties with visiting entertainers were held on raised platforms outdoors at the back of the church. Annual Fowl Suppers were held every year in the shed around Thanksgiving time. By 1958 the shed no longer served a useful purpose and was relocated to a local farm were it was used to store machinery.
In the beginning there were many more Methodist churches than qualified preachers. It was impossible for a preacher to be present at every church on every Sunday so many of the so called “godly men” in the congregations were pressed into service. At many churches, preachers only showed up at revival meetings. Some walked from church to church but many road horseback and stayed at various homes along the way.
Occasionally they would arrive at a home after the family had retired and rather than disturb them, would cautiously raise the window of the spare room and ask, “Is anyone sleeping in my bed?” Getting no reply they would climb in the window and retire for the night. Housewives served their choicest chicken dishes to the visiting preachers, and fathers named their sons after them. Chickens fled under the barn for safety until the preacher left. Families (except for the chickens) enjoyed being hosts for preachers.
In June of 1925 the Congregationalists, Methodists, and some Presbyterians joined to become the United Church of Canada in a Nation Wide bid to bring religions together. Thus the original Ebenezer Methodist Church became Ebenezer United Church.
The “Ebenezer Ladies Aid” society was formed in 1926 and an annual membership fee of twenty-five cents was levied, and each member present at the meetings would pay ten cents. With this money and from bazaars and bake sales, the society helped keep the church building in good repair.
Later on when they became more prosperous, the Ladies Aid paid the church hydro bills and the parsonage telephone bills. They also purchased a Communion Set and in 1927 bought a new pump organ. During the Great Depression they packed and forwarded bales of clothing to be distributed among needy families far and wide. In 1930, they arranged for the planting of trees and shrubs to beautify the Ebenezer cemetery grounds and presented the Cemetery Committee with the sum of $200 towards the purchase of a new fence, and donated a bulletin board for the outside of the church. Flowers, or blooming plants, were sent by them whenever sickness or death visited the homes in the community. In 1930 the name was changed from “Ladies Aid Society” to “Women’s Association”. The name again was changed in the 1962 to “The United Church Women”.
The 1950’s and early 1960’s were boom years for Ebenezer with the church being full on most Sundays. But by the late 1990’s attendance had dwindled to around 15 people a Sunday, due to the sale of local farms, people retiring and moving away, so it was decided that the church was no longer viable. On Sunday June 7th 1998, a service was held to officially mark the closing of Ebenezer United Church after a long and faithful ministry.
After closing, numerous meetings were held to determine if there was sufficient interest in saving and renovating the building to keep it from being abandoned. Former church members, members of the community, members of Thistletown United Church and members of Historical Societies attended these meetings. On Sunday September 20, 2001 at 3:00 p.m. a general meeting was held and a motion was passed to request to be incorporated under the Ontario Historical Society. The Historical Society accepted the application and the group named themselves Ebenezer, Toronto Gore Historical Foundation. The United Church of Canada deeded the property to the Foundation for one dollar. A Charitable Donations number was registered January 24, 2002.
The re-opening plan was to include a full basement to accommodate modern heating and washroom facilities as well as usable space. Funding was sought, an architect hired and a renovation permit application was submitted and issued. Major construction began on May 17, 2004 with the total construction cost estimated at approximately $450,000. Additional costs included an Archaeological Assessment to determine if there were graves in the construction area, sewer and water hook ups, replacement of electrical wiring, drywall and painting, landscaping and sidewalks, storm windows, insulation and many more items too numerous to mention.
Care was taken to preserve the original materials, and though the building was brought up to current standards, the original simple beauty was kept. Many friends of the community donated their skills and thousands of hours of labour to help finish the interior and outside landscaping.
A sincere thank you to all who have supported this project financially or with their time.