History of Our Church

History  (by Kathleen Aitken)

The history of St. Mary’s Parish began when Nipigon was still known as Red Rock Post, a Hudson Bay supply post, catering to tourists and fishermen who came to the Nipigon River, famous in Canada and the U.S. for its wondrous fishing and wilderness experiences.  The Post was a meeting place where Indigenous people were hired for guiding, transportation by canoe and portaging up the Nipigon River.  Red Rock Post was also the final supply post for missionaries en route to Lake Nipigon.

Algoma began as a missionary diocese.  The first church of St. Mary’s Parish was built in 1880, a mission to the Indigenous people of Lake Nipigon.  At the time, the only other Church of England (Anglican) church in the   Lake Superior district was at Prince Arthur’s Landing (now part of Thunder Bay).

The other Parish churches followed, their development influenced by early settlement history:  St. Mary’s Nipigon, St. Matthew’s Dorion and St. Peter’s Red Rock.  In each place, dedicated Anglican people and clergy worked to build their churches and serve Christ in their communities.  Many hours of loving labour maintained the buildings.  Our faith has grown through the generations as people of this parish have sought to understand God’s purpose in the context of the world around them.  In the review of historical records, it is striking to note the number of baptisms over the years, and the confirmations, all attended by the Bishops of Algoma.

 St. Mary’s Negwenenang

In 1878 Bishop Fauquier and the Rev. E.F. Wilson travelled from Sault Ste. Marie to Red Rock Post thence up the Nipigon River with its eight portages, guided by Indigenous people in their canoes. The party was met one evening by a flotilla of canoes under the command of Chief Manetooshans, who told them that, 30 years before, his father Chief Muhnedoshans had been promised that a teacher would be sent to them. The old Chief’s dying words to his son were that, when an English teacher did come they were to receive him, listen to him, and ask him to establish a mission among them. Bishop Fauquier and Rev. Wilson were seen by the natives as the long-looked-for blessing. They found an open door and a prepared people, who believed the Great Spirit had sent them. “The Indigenous people were eager listeners to the first sound of the Gospel message now preached to them.” The Bishop promised to provide them a teacher and sent an appeal to England.

In 1880 St. Mary’s Negwenenang, named after the native boy who had died at the Shingwauk Home in Sault St. Marie, was built in the McIntyre Bay/Grand Bay area of Lake Nipigon. The logs for the church were all cut by Indigenous people, and every board had to be made by hand.

Reverend Robert Renison first heard of the Ojibwa of Lake Nipigon while attending Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where he took his MA. In 1880, he sailed to Canada and journeyed to Sault Ste. Marie. With him came his wife Mary Elizabeth Renison and three sons of whom the oldest Robert Jr. was later to become the Bishop of Moosonee. That winter the missionary taught at the Shingwauk House for Indian children while he learned the Ojibwa language.

In the spring of 1881, Renison and his family travelled to Prince Arthur’s Landing, aboard the steamer ‘Frances Smith’. It was one of four passenger boats on the Lake Superior Royal Mail Line, which sailed from Collingwood on Georgian Bay. It and the other steamers in the fleet—the ‘Algoma’, the ‘Cumberland’ and the ‘Chicora’—maintained a twice-weekly service to Duluth, Minn.

From Prince Arthur’s Landing , the Renisons boarded a sailboat for the trip to Red Rock Post at the mouth of the Nipigon River, where the Nipigon Marina is now located. Robert Jr. recalled that they “were met by a great birch bark canoe manned by six Indians with painted chests.”

En route to McIntyre Bay, 104 km (65 miles) from the Hudson’s Bay company post, the canoe ascended the river. At each landing a canoeist hoisted Mary Elizabeth Renison, who was heavy with child, on his back and carried her across the portage. When the Renison’s reached the mission settlement they found shelter in a birch bark wigwam. On that first night in their new home, Mrs. Renison gave birth to May (their first daughter); native women acted as midwives.

Rev. Renison continued to live at the Lake Nipigon mission until the late 1880’s, when a fire destroyed the mission house and the Renison’s lost almost everything. Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the increase in population around it had increased the need for missionary work at (Nipigon), leading to the joining of the Missions of Lake Nipigon and Nipigon Station and making a field about twelve thousand square miles in size. Following this, Rev. Renison and the early missionaries who succeeded him, Rev. Benjamin Philip Fuller, Rev. Leslie Adler Todd and Rev. Percy Frank Bull, lived at Nipigon and continued the missionary work at St. Mary’s Negwenenang and other points on Lake Nipigon. After the death of Bishop Fauquier in 1881, Bishop Edward Sullivan and Archbishop George Thorneloe also made frequent visits to the Lake Nipigon natives.

The missionaries had charge of all work around the lake which was said to be about eighty miles long and forty miles wide. In the earlier days travelling was by means of canoes along the shores to the encampments in the summer time. When fall and winter set in Indigenous people gathered together more on the reserves from which they went out trapping. The missionary travelled to these reserves in winter by dog teams.

Construction of railway lines, east and west of Nipigon, north from Nipigon, and east-west at the top of Lake Nipigon increased the number of people reached by the missionaries as they visited the railway work camps as well as First Nations settlements. When construction of the CN railway line north from Nipigon began, the Woman’s Auxiliary Branch of Toronto donated a sail boat about thirty feet long, with a gasoline engine as an auxiliary power. With the mission boat stationed at Orient Bay for the summer months, the work of visiting the encampments around the Lake became much more possible, but still not without danger.

Stories of adventure and survival against the waves of Lake Nipigon storms have been found in the Archives of the Diocese at Algoma University. A September 1911 account notes that, “To be efficient a missionary on Lake Nipigon ought to be able to sail a boat, handle a gasoline engine, paddle a canoe and in winter run a dog-team.”

In 1888, the faithful natives petitioned the Bishop to rebuild at Lake Nipigon, but the difficult decision was made to build at Nipigon. The Diocese supported the missionary work amongst the Anishnaabe at Grand Bay and Gull Bay until at least 1920, but the number of natives declined through illness and relocation.

 St. Mary’s Nipigon

Nipigon (Red Rock Post) was still a fledgling village before the railway was built.  Beginning in 1882, Church of England (Anglican) worship services were held, once a month, in the home of Mr. Flanagan, then the only permanent resident.  Mr. Flanagan was the manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s store on Red Rock Post.  The small congregation, often only eight or ten, included the Flanagan family and a few Indigenous members of the English Church, who lived on the opposite shore at the entrance to Nipigon Bay.


During the construction of the CPR, Rev. Robert Renison, the missionary who then lived on Lake Nipigon, found it necessary to spend the summer months here, as there were hundreds of men who were never visited by a clergyman of any kind.  Men worked regularly seven days every week and the Sabbath was not observed.  Rev. Renison began to hold services in any available place:  sometimes in boarding houses, saloons, the quarry, or even in boarding cars.


The Red Rock Post (Nipigon) was experiencing an economic boom of sorts.  After the railway was completed in 1885, Rev. Robert Renison moved his family to Nipigon, although he continued to travel to Lake Nipigon, to lead worship there.  Renison built a home at the foot of the portage around the first rapids on the Nipigon River.


When the CPR station was built, the agent invited Rev. Renison to hold services in the waiting room.  This provided a larger and more orderly place for services:  a reading desk was made by the men themselves, lamps were provided, and regular Sunday services through the summer months established.


The first St. Mary’s at Nipigon was constructed in 1888, on what is now Second Street, between the railway station and Renison’s home.  The local people contributed about $250 and help was received from tourists and visitors.   St. Mary’s debt was paid off by 1890.  Save for the painting, the Church building was then complete with furnishings, bell and organ.


Bishop Sullivan came to Nipigon in June 1890 to consecrate the new church, first named St. Mary the Virgin Church.  Almost all of the people from St. Mary’s Negwinenang had arrived two days before, travelling by canoes a distance of sixty miles, to meet their Bishop.  The morning service was in English and the afternoon service in Ojibwe, led by the Bishop who read the Indigenous language well.  The church was filled to its utmost capacity.  Many settlers had never heard an Ojibway service before and were impressed with the Anishnaabe participation in the service, singing the hymns and giving devout responses without the aid of their prayer books.   


The congregation of St. Mary’s Parish remained faithful over the years.  They withstood the environment with basic housing and heating: “On one occasion in 1897 the thermometer (at) Nipigon went down to 72 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit).”  They survived fluctuations in population and economic difficulties.  Even when men were laid off from the CPR in 1895 the congregation at St. Mary’s Nipigon installed two iron rods to strengthen the structure of the church, and added pews.  The belfry and the chimney were repaired to stop a leak.


In 1907 Nipigon had a population of 100 people, with just four Church families.  Then followed World War I when enlisted men left the community, and the ensuing economy difficulties.


By 1920 the church was recovering financially.  The outstanding feature of the Church’s work in the village of Nipigon was reported to be its Sunday School, where the membership showed something like universality in both religion and nationality, with Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and others well represented; and racial origins including Swedes, Finns, Poles and Italians, as well as those of British birth.


Despite the opinion of Archbishop Thorneloe in 1921 that the church was then in a “bad state of repair,” the St. Mary’s congregation worked to improve and maintain the building over many more years.  In 1972, the Rev. Reginald Inshaw built new doors for the church himself.  During his tenure, a basement was put in with the financial aid of the Diocese and a government grant, obtained by the seniors’ Silver Club. 

St. Matthew’s Dorion

Dorion was opened for settlement in 1893. Settlers began clearing land by hand until they could bring in horses or oxen. After the railway was built the men would arrive by train. They would make the trek on foot, carrying basic supplies to the property which had been acquired by them; establish its boundaries, begin clearing and build a first dwelling. Then would follow the rest of the family with perhaps a cow and some chickens, all following forest trails to their new home. The population grew from 21 people in 1901, to 216 in 1911, its growth based on agriculture, logging (sawmill), fishing and mining.

In 1900 the main road was a cut-off a few miles west of Dorion. Port Arthur was the nearest stop for groceries, and the only means of transportation was by train.

About January 1913, Rev. Percy F. Bull (the St. Mary’s Parish priest) was holding services in the Farmers’ Club Hall and the old schoolhouse. In this period, Anglican services were conducted in Dorion, Ouimet, Pearl, Loon Lake and later at Hurkett, as well as other points in the parish.

The vision for a church at Dorion appears to have taken shape before War was declared in 1914. In the early days of the church’s history, the Rev. Percy F. Bull used to hoist the flag to notify parishioners that there would be a service, as roads and other types of communications were not very common in those days. By 1916, Rev. Bull wrote in a letter to Archbishop Thorneloe that the Dorion church had been “got into shape for use, with sufficient furnishing to answer for the present.” When Archbishop Thorneloe visited in July, he found a frame structure church on a cement foundation, with a basement wall high enough to form a spacious parish room. The interior above and below were unfinished, and the seating for sixty people was temporary, yet services had been held in the building since early spring.

St. Matthew’s interior walls had been finished by 1920, and the furnishing of the sanctuary was well advanced. The congregation had made special efforts in 1920-21 to clear the building of debt, and succeeded in accomplishing this end so that the church was entirely free of debt by Easter 1921. The Church of Saint Matthew’s was consecrated by Archbishop Thorneloe on June 14, 1921.

A service in St. Matthew’s on Sunday October 10, 1943 observed the 30th Anniversary of the Anglican Missionary work in the district and paid tribute to the efforts of those who had faithfully laboured for the cause of Christ and the Church from the early part of 1913.

By 1960, a drainage problem caused leakage in the basement of the church and the walls and floor started to deteriorate. The people prepared a new site for the church on the same property, working together at Saturday “bees,” and finishing the new slab foundation so that by the fall they could hire a house mover from Port Arthur to move the church over.

Since the late 1970’s the population continued to decline due to an ever changing economic environment. Despite the congregation’s efforts, by 2003 it was recognized that the church could not survive financially. Shortly after that the church was closed. The building serves as a community museum and a reminder of the dedication of so many faithful people.

St. Peter’s Red Rock

Red Rock began with the establishment of pulp and paper industry. An Anglican mission was begun in 1932. Starting in 1944, Rev. Alfred J. Bull (the St. Mary’s parish priest) established regular services which were held in the dining room of the company-owned hotel, later in the basement of the hotel, and then in the theatre. Rev. Bull also prompted the organization of a church building committee and finance committee. The first chair of the building committee was Percy White, then plant engineer at the mill. Shortages of labour and material delayed building.

Contributions to the building fund included:

A $3,000 Grant from the Missionary Society of the Church in Canada;

Gifts of $5000 from the Brompton Company; and

$500 from the General Manager of Brompton.

St. Peter’s was built in 1948. The cornerstone is part of a capital from a nave pier head from the roof of St. Olave’s Church, Hart Street, London, England—a church damaged in the WW II bombing.

The men and women of St. Peter’s continued to improve their church–in the 1950’s some 2000 hours of volunteer labour poured concrete, installed plumbing and electrical services, laid and finished hardwood floors. In the 1970’s, they undertook redecorating, tiling the kitchen floor and making repairs to the roof. These are just the projects we have read about; work on the church was obviously on-going.

For some years the church building was shared with the United Church. This made it possible for the Anglican congregation to continue using their church despite economic downturns in the pulp and paper industry and significant loss of population. Sadly, St. Peter’s closed in October 2000. A number of St. Peter’s people have become dedicated members of St. Mary’s Nipigon, travelling to church approximately 12 miles around Paju Mountain. Several people from St. Mary’s make the trip to Red Rock every month to hold services for older residents at Mountainview Court.

Building of the new St. Mary’s

The people of St. Mary’s, and the people of Nipigon had a deep affection for the old building. As the millennium approached, it was over 100 years old, the oldest standing building in Nipigon. It had major structural deficiencies, needed a new roof and windows, was inaccessible to key areas and lacked sufficient seating capacity, an office and space for events. The congregation struggled with the decision to abandon the old church and build a new one.

A new church was proposed which would be on one level, be fully accessible, and provide space for more people attending special services, weddings, funerals or community events. The planning and fund raising for the new church and the building of it is a story in itself, which will be willingly told if you ask, with many thanks to God.

On March 19, 2006 a service of Thanksgiving was held in the old church. Part of the address to the congregation was these words,

“To many of you, this building has been hallowed by cherished memories, and we know that some will suffer a sense of loss. We pray that they will be comforted by the knowledge that the presence of God is not tied to any place or building.”

Memories were shared, prayers of thanksgiving for the past and the future said, and a procession formed to the new St. Mary’s, led by the crucifer and carrying the communion elements, sanctuary furnishings and books for worship.

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PO Box 220
Nipigon, ON P0T 2J0

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