IN 1790 the residents of the area just east of Prescott decided to build a church at their burial ground in New Oswegatchie. That church is today’s Little Blue Church. Our regular visitors will remember it as being featured on our Historic Philippines Christmas card in 2013 – the photo we used is below.
Since I hadn’t seen the Church in several years, I decided it was time to get back there for a look around. Off we went, now this little church is only about a 10 to 15 minute drive east of Brockville along the famous and very picturesque St Lawrence River, just across from Ogdensburg, New York.
Barbara von Ruckle was born in Limerick County, Ireland, to parents whose Protestant forebears had fled persecution in Germany. French soldiers under King Louis XIV pillaged the southern part of Germany, harassing all who clung to the truths of the Reformation. The beleaguered people scattered. In 1709 a group of 110 families fled together, getting as far as Rotterdam where it seemed the ocean would frustrate them forever. Pitying their plight, Queen Anne of England dispatched British ships to the Dutch seaport to salvage the refugees. The grateful people were set down in County Limerick, while the government eased them into their new life by paying rent on the land which they farmed for the next two decades.
In no time the recently-arrived German refugees demonstrated their superiority to the wild native Irish peasants in all aspects of agriculture. Resentment mounted. Rents were raised 600%. John Wesley (who made 22 trips to Ireland) was aghast when he visited the German-speaking colony and witnessed the manner in which they had been penalized for their industry.
He wrote in his journal, “I stand amazed! Have landlords no common sense (whether they have common humanity or no) that they will suffer such as these to be starved away from them?”
Wesley noted too that these people were starving for the bread of life as well. He had observed that in the fifty years since they had left Germany these people had become “eminent for drunkenness, cursing, swearing and utter neglect of religion.” He attributed their downward slide to the fact that for fifty years they had been without a German-speaking pastor. Wesley himself, however, was fluent in German. He was overjoyed to see the Methodist articulation of the gospel seize the people and change them profoundly.
At age eighteen Barbara had publicly professed her faith in Jesus Christ. When Wesley visited the emerald isle several years later the two of them resonated. The distinctive emphases of Methodism, rooted in Barbara, would eventually be transplanted into the soil of the new world.
By now the gentry in Ireland were confiscating the pastureland which the German refugees held in common. Deprived of land and afflicted with unpayable taxes, many of them decided to emigrate to America. Barbara married Paul Hescht (the name was anglicized to “Heck”), and together they braved a sixty-three day trip to New York City.
New York City, in 1760, was populated with 14,000 Dutch, English, German, Spanish and Afro-Americans. The city’s spiritual carelessness startled Barbara, as did a similar degeneration in those of the extended family (cousins, in-laws, more distant relatives) which had emigrated with her. She pleaded with her cousin, Philip Embury, to preach. He maintained he couldn’t inasmuch as he had neither church nor congregation. “Preach in your own home, and I will gather a congregation”, Barbara replied. The mustard seed beginning consisted of four people: Barbara, her husband, a labourer, and a black female servant. They persevered. Just when it seemed that the mustard seed would never germinate and multiply, Captain Thomas Webb appeared. He was regimental commander of the British forces at Albany. Standing erect in his military bearing, attired in the famous redcoat, Webb preached and the congregation grew. (In addition to his redcoat Webb wore a green patch over one eye. He had been wounded at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, when Quebec fell to the British.) Soon the congregation had outgrown the private home where it was meeting. A church-building would have to be built, and Barbara herself designed it, the first Methodist church-building in the new world. At the service of dedication the preacher expounded Hosea 10:12:
Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground,
for it is time to seek the Lord.
This building was soon outgrown, and in 1768 another was raised in New York City. The seats had no backs and the gallery was reached by means of a ladder. Hundreds thronged it every Sunday.
When the American War of Independence loomed, Barbara and her husband, together with their five children, left New York City for a farm in Camden, near Lake Champlain. Angry neighbours who supported the coming revolution burned them out, destroying all their livestock and forcing them off the land. Once again the Heck family moved, this time to the Montreal area. A few years later they settled in the region of what would become Brockville. Compared to New York City their habitat was a wilderness. Undaunted, however, Barbara commenced her mustard seed sowing all over again. It took her years to gather enough people to form the first Methodist class in Canada.
The family received a grant of land in the Third Concession of Augusta Township near what became the hamlet of Maynard. There they held the first Methodist class (service) in their tiny cabin in the forest. A number of other Methodist families received grants of land in the same vicinity and this tiny group was instrumental in establishing the first circuits of the Canadian Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Upper Canada.
Methodism was particularly well-suited to frontier conditions since its followers were quite happy to hold services in their houses or the outdoors, if necessary, whenever one of their circuit riders (itinerant preachers) visited them.
When she was seventy years old one of her three sons found Barbara sitting in her chair, her German bible open on her lap. The woman who had never spoken English well, yet who was the mother of English Methodism in Canada, had gone home.
The Blue Church in New Oswegatchie.
Three miles west of Prescott, Ontario, on Highway 2, overlooking the banks of the St. Lawrence River, stands a tiny church known as the Blue Church.
On Jan.1st, 1790, a number of inhabitants of the townships of Edwardsburg, Augusta and Elizabethtown held a public meeting and agreed to build a church on part of the “Church Commons” in the government of New Oswegatchie. The plot, situated near the centre of the river front of Augusta Township had been laid out in 1784 by Captain Justus Sherwood and almost all the settlers in these three townships had drawn one or more town lots there in 1784-87. The Church Commons included about 16 acres, running north from the river across the plot near it’s centre and intended as a reserve for public use including sites for a church and a burying ground. The burying ground had come into use very early and it was beside this that it was proposed to build the church, finally erected in 1809. Included in the burial ground is a memorial to the late Barbara Heck who was buried there. She and her husband, Paul, were the founders of Methodism in Canada. The first church was burned down.
In 1845 the present Blue Church was built, chiefly to be used as a mortuary chapel. It is still used occasionally for services and stands as a memorial to the pioneers who settled this area. Charred timbers were found from the earlier church and were re-used as studs in the present church walls.
The graveyard attracts many tourists and history buffs. Many of the tombstones bear the names of Loyalists such as: Avery, Bottom, Breakenridge, Butler, Everts, French, Heck, Humberstone, Hurd, Hurlburt, Jessup, Jones, Knapp, Lawrence, Sherwood, Smades, Snider, Weatherhead and Wright.
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Other materials and some photos provided by: www.wikipedia.org
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