The Rockingham Church
The Rockingham Church, formerly known as St. Leonard’s Anglican Church, was built in 1875, when the hamlet of Rockingham was a thriving community. Essentially abandoned 60 years ago, the church’s simple grace and imposing location high on a slope overlooking the village attract many visitors each year. A post and beam structure, the building is a unique survivor of its kind in Renfrew County and one of the oldest remaining buildings in the area. In 1999, the Townships of Brudenell, Lyndoch & Raglan designated the church a heritage site under the Ontario Heritage Act.
In the 1850s, construction of the Opeongo and Peterson colonization roads was opening up the “Ottawa country.” The government of the day advertised widely for settlers, granting 100 acres to immigrants who would clear and build homesteads on that land.
The village of Rockingham was the settlement founded by John. S. J. Watson, born in 1822 and raised at Rockingham Castle in the British Midlands. In the late 1850s, Watson was given a large sum of money by his father and sent off with a group of settlers, many highly skilled, to the new land. Popular history has it that Watson was a “remittance man,” banished from his home for marrying beneath his station.
Arriving in the Ottawa Valley in 1859, John Watson received a grant of 1000 acres on the Peterson Road in Brudenell Township, six miles south of the Opeongo. Capitalizing on the creek and waterfall, he and his group built a grist mill and a sawmill (the town was first called Watson’s Mills) as well as a general store, post office, blacksmith’s shop, hotel, tannery, school and ultimately the church. By 1888, the population was about 60; it swelled to 110 by 1899, then began to dwindle as the once abundant white and red pine were logged off and farmers moved on to more arable land.
John Watson represented Brudenell at the formation of the Renfrew County Council and served two consecutive terms as Warden during its early years (1883 and 1884). He died in 1913 and was buried in front of the church he was responsible for building, his grave marked by a large marble monument.
History of the Rockingham Church
Evidence for the date of construction of the Rockingham Church is conflicting, but The Renfrew Mercury, May 28, 1875, reported:
New Church at Rockingham
The Protestant settlers at Rockingham have, with the assistance of a few kind friends, lately erected a commodious place of worship for the settlement, the site having been given by J.S.J. Watson, Esq. The local subscriptions amount to $330, and from non-local subscriptions a further sum of $130 has been raised; but as this is insufficient to complete and fit up the church, the Building Committee are appealing to the liberality of other friends to give them a helping hand. The Building Committee are Messrs. J.S.J. Watson, R. Acton, and John Bond.
According to the Rev. M.G. Poole, writing in the Dominion Churchman in 1880, John Watson had guaranteed $200 if a clergyman was stationed at Combermere or Rockingham, adding “At one time some years back he built…a comfortable parsonage, stable and barn for the use of any clergyman appointed at Rockingham, but no satisfactory offer being made, he removed the building. One of the attractions of this place is a nice little church, built upon the top of a hill, erected principally by the above gentleman, in which I have often taken services, there being always a large and attentive congregation.” In 1882, the Anglican Mission Board granted $400 to the Bishop of Ontario toward the support of a missionary to be stationed at Rockingham, where there was “a genial society of church members, Mr. Watson and family being among them.” The Rev. A.W. MacKay arrived in early 1882 to take up the position. The Church Warden’s Accounts for the same year record expenses of $391.14 to improve the church with the addition of a porch, communion rail, and organ, most likely to complete it for use as an Anglican mission; at that time it was named St. Leonard’s Church. A stove was added in 1885, and a belfry and bell in 1891.
In 1912, a year before his death, John Watson deeded St. Leonard’s to the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. The last regular service was held in 1924, and the church had no minister from then until 1944; although Rev. Leon B.G. Adams was minister from 1944-47, the church was apparently closed in 1941. The pews, font and bell were removed in 1945-46, to Quadeville, Barry’s Bay and Killaloe respectively. On May 14, 1967, Bishop Ernest Reed of Ottawa performed the Act of Secularization on the church.
In 1975 and 1976, a group under the name Madawaska Association for Developmental Ecology (M.A.D.E.) repaired the back wall, reshingled the roof and arranged for the return of the pews. Apart from the visits of tourists, history buffs and artists, the church stood empty and decaying until 1995, when the Friends of the Rockingham Church formed to undertake the present rehabilitation of the building.
Architecture of the Rockingham Church
The church is constructed in conventional post and beam style, with board and batten siding of locally cut pine. The siding is for the most part the original wood, installed in 1875. The old shingles removed in 1974-75 were of cedar—it is hard to believe they could have been original after 100 years, but there is no record in the Church Warden’s accounts that shows earlier repairs or replacement.
Notable features of the 26’ x 36’ structure are the elegant round-headed windows, the aged wood-panelled walls and ceiling, and the tall steeple built by Samuel Acton in 1891, originally clad with steel shingles. The steeple apparently leans inward by design—so that if it were to fall, it would fall toward the building and not toward the church entrance. The bell, made by H. Shane & Co., Renfrew, was removed to the Anglican church in Killaloe in 1945 or ’46, and remains there. A replacement bell has been found.
The porch entryway was added on the west side of the building in 1882. Repairs to the building confirmed that there was a door frame in the east end wall (behind the pulpit) but it is not known if this was ever used as a door. One account has it that a young wife, anticipating her untimely death, asked her husband to bury her near the southeast corner, where he would be reminded of her every Sunday. We can only wonder how his memory fared when the door was relocated to the west end. A masonry chimney was also installed at the east end. Framing between the ceiling and the roof and a hole in the roof at the west end suggest the intention at some early time to locate a chimney there, but this was never done.
The elegant curved pews are original to the Rockingham Church. They were removed to the Quadeville Pentecostal Church in the 1940s and returned in the mid-1970s. The original altar rail and pulpit remain, although the font was moved to the Union Church at Barry’s Bay.
The repairs undertaken in 1999 and 2000 uncovered extensive rot to the post and beam structure within the walls and at the ground, which had caused the increasing sag in the walls and roof. Siding boards were removed and numbered to allow repair and/or replacement of the 8” x 8” beams without disturbing the interior panelling. Rafter ends, too, were rotting where they sat on the wall top plates. These were reinforced with new lumber, unsound roof decking was replaced, and the roof was reshingled in new cedar. The steeple was removed for repairs and reshingling. After much debate, copper was chosen for the steeple shingles for its longevity and its appearance. Repairs were completed in July 2000.
The Friends of the Rockingham Church, Inc.
The Friends of the Rockingham Church formed in 1995, in response to the imminent threat of the church’s demolition. The Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, then the owner of the church, was concerned about the building’s deteriorating condition and applied to the municipality for a demolition permit. Local concerned citizens took action, prevailed upon the Diocese to delay and eventually waive the application. The group incorporated in 1997 and was designated a charitable organization by Revenue Canada. The purchase of the building was finalized in 1998.
This preservation project was funded by grants from the Canada Millennium Partnership Program, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Haley Foundation of New Hope, Pennsylvania, the Township of Brudenell, Lyndoch and Raglin through The Ontario Lottery Corporation, and by donations of money and materials from over 70 individuals and businesses. The Friends publicly acknowledge and thank all of these people and bodies for their support. We give special thanks to those individuals who supported the project in its early stages and encouraged us to continue when at times it seemed hopeless.
The Friends continue to raise funds for the ongoing maintenance and insurance of the building and to support programs to publicize its historical value. Tax receipts are issued for all donations. Cheques may be made out to:
The Friends of the Rockingham Church, Inc.
Box 271, Killaloe
Ontario, K0J 2A0
How to Get There
The Rockingham Church is located at the junction of John Watson Road and the Rockingham Road, in the village of Rockingham. From the east (Killaloe or Eganville), turn off Hwy. 512 at Brudenell onto Renfrew County Road #66 (the Opeongo Line). Turn left onto Renfrew County Road #68 (the Letterkenny Road) and follow the signs to Rockingham. From the west (Combermere), turn off Hwy. 62 onto Hwy. 515. Turn left immediately onto Renfrew County Road #68 (the Rockingham Road) and follow to Rockingham.