Local Historic Sites: Old Hay Bay Church

Old Hay Bay Church. (my photo)

Old Hay Bay Church. (my photo)

I’ve been kind of beating you over the head with churches lately – my last historic site post was also about churches – but as you can see Old Hay Bay Church is something rather different. It was built on the south shore of Hay Bay, between Napanee and Adolphustown, in 1792 and stands as the oldest surviving Methodist meeting-house in Canada. To me, it looks like a piece of New England plunked into the Ontario countryside.

Reverend William Losee, an itinerant preacher from New York, came to Canada in 1790 and began converting people to Methodism, which rapidly gained as a religious movement. This meeting-house was built just two years later, and along with Fairfield House (1793) and Fairfield-Gutzeit House (1796) constitutes one of the very oldest structures in the area. (All three buildings are in the vicinity of Bath – Bath is a very lucky place!) Old Hay Bay Church also has one of the best signs I’ve seen in a long time posted in its entrance:

Yes. (my photo)

Yes. (my photo)

(my photo)

(my photo)

Old Hay Bay Church was enlarged in 1835 to its present size, and was used as a church until 1860. When a newer church was built close by, it was used as farm storage (!) until some Methodists in 1910 thought better of the place and decided to reclaim it. Today, it’s only used for services once a year, on the fourth Sunday of August.

(my photo)

(my photo)

Apparently the posts you see in the photo above are the originals; the floor, made of rough wooden planks, also looks extremely old. It’s incredible to think of 223 years of people coming here!

(my photo)

(my photo)

They have a small display of artifacts in the church (including a 1783 letter penned by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism) but the main attraction is the building itself, and how it gives you a taste of what the Loyalists valued. The building is simple, plain, functional, and tidy, but also pretty big considering what the population must have been like in the area, even by 1835 when it was enlarged. This shows how much early settlers prized having not only a religious and community centre, but also upholding the values of this new faith which was taking off like wildfire in Canada. Methodism was certainly Christian, but it was a bit… intense. For example, number four in John Wesley’s directions for hymn-singing reads:

IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead, or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

You should also not sing louder or differently than anyone else, and you shouldn’t be too pleased with your voice if you sing well. Meanwhile, if you’re preaching, you must be “serious, weighty, and solemn,” make sure you don’t seem “awkward or affected,” and if you notice that someone else is acting that way, you have to tell them. Because John Wesley says so.

The upper level, with a very slanted floor. (my photo)

The upper level, with a very slanted floor. (my photo)

Old Hay Bay Church is also known for a drowning tragedy which occurred on the morning of August 29, 1819. An anonymous poem tells the story (yes, the formatting is really bad, blame WordPress not me):

A Ballad on the Death of Ten Young People, Drowned in Hay Bay

Come all you good people of every degree/ read over these lines, which are penned down by me/ And when you are reading these lines, which are true/ Remember the warning is also for you.

In the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred Nineteen/ On the twenty-ninth of August, on Sunday, I mean/ The place where it happened I’ll also put down/ But the loss I can’t tell of, in Adolphustown.

These people were all in good health and in prime/ All modestly clothed in apparel so fine/To Church they were going, their God to adore/ To reach the said place they had Hay Bay to cross o’er.

The boat being small, and their number eighteen/To go over together they all ventured in/They launched away singing a sweet exercise/Their moment near by them was hid from their eyes.

The voice of Jehovah speaks to us all/Always be ready, to go at His call/And when you are reading these mournful lines o’er/Death may be sent for you, and enter your door.

The boat being leaky, the water came in/To bale with their hats they too late did begin/They looked at each other and began for to weep/The boat filled with water and sank in the deep.

Their friends on the shore then for help flew with speed/And eight of the number from the water they freed/There were brothers and sisters and parents also/Soon heard the sad story, which filled them with woe.

A seine was preparing to draw them to land/Their friends all a-weeping around them did stand/Such cries and lamentings were never before/The loss was so fatal, that none could restore.

There was John and Jane German, Peter Bogart also/There was Mary and Jane Detlor in the waters below/There was Matilda Roblin, and Betsy McCoy/Betsy Clark, Huldah Madden, and the said Mary Cole.

To the unchangeable regions their spirits are fled/And left their poor bodies inactive and dead/Their friends with loud weeping around them were found/Their bodies preparing to enter the ground.

On the Monday following, their coffins were made/And into the same their dead bodies were laid/And solemnly borne into the Churchyard/Their graves, in rotation, for them were prepared.

A large congregation, on that solemn day/Assembled together to visit their clay/To join the afflicted in their mournful state/And also to comfort in sorrow so great.

A sermon was delivered on that solemn scene/By Sir Isaac Puffer, from Job the nineteen/”Although these vile bodies the worms may destroy/They shall see God in glory, in fullness of joy.”

The sermon being over, and brought to a close/And some words of comfort were offered to those/Whose hearts were quite broken and filled with grief/And in a few moments these bodies must leave.

Their coffins were open to all public view/That all might behold them and bid them adieu/And then to convey them to the silent clay/No more to behold them till the Judgement Day.

And now we must leave them, beneath the cold ground/Till Gabriel’s trumpet shall give the last sound/Awake! thou that sleepest, and arise from your tomb/And come forth to Judgement to hear your last doom!

(my photo)

(my photo)

All the victims, excepting Mary Cole, were buried in this graveyard. The grave markers are unusual wooden posts. (my photo)

All the victims, excepting Mary Cole, were buried in this graveyard. The grave markers seen today are unusual wooden posts. (my photo)

The grave of John and Jane German. (my photo)

The marker of John and Jane German. (my photo)

I believe the oldest victim was about twenty and the youngest twelve. They were on their way to a prayer meeting, which was interrupted when members of the congregation heard screams from out on the bay. Those on land managed to save eight of the boaters, but not the other ten. Apparently many of the victims’ parents and siblings witnessed the scene, which must have been brutal. It was reported in the Kingston Chronicle on 3 September 1819, and was re-told in an 1897 account which you can read here.

An archaeological assessment was done of the cemetery in 1993 to try to find the graves, as well as other early burials there. Apparently small stones were found sunken into the ground that may indicate graves. However – why excavate for dead bodies when you can dowse for them?

(my photo)

(my photo)

You read that right. At Old Hay Bay Church, they dowse – for dead bodies. I deeply regret not looking at this display more closely (I thought it was just dowsing for water) but thankfully my mother talked to one of the custodians, a nice old lady, who explained that no, they sometimes use dowsing rods to look for graves. Apparently some people have a “gift” and can even tell the age and gender of the deceased. You can’t make this stuff up, people.

Anyway, despite the possibility of unmarked graves lurking below the surface, we had lunch on the grounds of the church, and then stopped in at Bath on the way back home. (I must give a shout-out here to Rosa’s Café in Bath, where I ate maybe the most perfect brownie in the universe.) Old Hay Bay Church is worth the trip, and nothing gets my imagination going like mysterious stories of tragedies, forgotten graves, and 200-year-old churches. On that note, here’s a spooky photo of Old Hay Bay Church, pre-rehabilitation, to leave you with. It’s from the Deseronto Archives’ Flickr page. Enjoy!

Old Hay Bay Church c. 1908. Deseronto Archives, from the collection of Kenneth Brown. (click image to go to source)

Old Hay Bay Church c. 1908. Deseronto Archives, from the collection of Kenneth Brown. (click image to go to source)


I mostly used pamphlets picked up at the church for this post, but here are:

Old Hay Bay Church website

Old Hay Bay Church National Historic Site page


5 thoughts on “Local Historic Sites: Old Hay Bay Church

  1. Thank you for the post. For more on John Wesley, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement’s effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Again, thank you, for the post.

  2. Great post (especially the pictures)! I had heard of dowsing for water but not graves–how strange. I’m also interested in the grave markers, wood doesn’t last very long!

    • Thank you! Yes the dowsing is pretty strange, as are the wooden grave markers. As I wrote in my post the graves were considered lost or forgotten for quite some time, which suggests the markers are newer rather than older. In retrospect this is something I really should have asked about!

  3. It just goes to show you can never judge a book by its cover. You would never guess the amount of history behind that building by just looking at the place. I thought it was just an old farm before I read the title. Thanks for sharing its history with us! I can’t believe dowsing for bodies is a thing though. I mean….what?!

    Also John Wesley sounds like he would have been fun at parties.

    • I know, it’s actually a really interesting place! The dowsing thing is real old-time superstition, like I said I wish I had taken a closer look at that display for some context! (Because… why?!)

      And oh yeah – John Wesley would have kept the party going all night long.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s