Bishop Marston once said, “Because we have a heritage we have a mission.” In an unexpected moment the truth of this statement became alive to me. As I was rummaging through a dark and dusty corner of the attic of New Hope Free Methodist Church (Bracebridge), I uncovered a long forgotten piece of history. Contained within battered wood and faded ink was a story penned during a painful time for this congregation, for the nation of Canada and indeed for the entire world. I had discovered a plaque suffering from neglect and the passing of time. The scroll inside the plaque read: “For King and Country: Members of the Bracebridge Free Methodist Church who volunteered for active service with Canada ’s fighting force.” The list contained the names of 19 brave young men and women who volunteered to served this nation during the second world war. The names on the plaque are: Warren Goheen, Leonard Goheen, Arnold Goheen, Kennith Goheen, Stanley Shier, Wilma Shier, Gerald Shier, Fank Brodie, Thomas Brodie, George Clarey, Abram Clarey, Harold Moreland, Robert White, Frank Ormsby, Dorothy Budnick, Dalton Stuthers, and Lloyd Hoover. It seemed appropriate to me that I would discover this hidden gem in 2005. Last year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, and the Canadian government had declared 2005 the Year of the Veteran. Now, here in my hands I held the names of 19 young men and women who had so faithfully heeded the call. There could not have been a better time for the discovery of this plaque.
It was then I knew our church had to do something to honour and remember this part of our congregational and community legacy. I wanted to bring this plaque to life; to turn these 19 names into flesh and blood. After some initial research on the names, I went to the Veterans Affairs website, searching the “Virtual War Grave”. This website, which is a great resource, “contains a registry of information about the graves and memorials of more than 116 000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who served valiantly and gave their lives for their country” (see websites listed below). Indeed, many were required to give their lives. Of the 1, 031, 902 men and 49, 963 women who served in this war, 44, 927 were killed. After checking this website, and cross-referencing my list with the Bracebridge cenotaph, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that all those listed on the Bracebridge plaque survived the war. I knew step two would be to try and locate any living veterans who once attended the church. After several phone calls I was able to speak with Walter Reynolds (who passed away in Feb. 2006) and Wilma Shier (who currently resides in Kingston ). I wrote up letters to the local papers sharing my excitement concerning the significant discovery from the attic, I included the stories of these two veterans and then I invited the community for a special Remembrance Day Service.
The military plaque was restored to its former glory thanks to the volunteer effort of a legion member who once had a furniture restoration business. I contacted politicians at every level of government, and obtained promotional material from the ministry of veteran affairs. The Remembrance Day service included a piper, the laying of wreaths and a ceremonial colour guard with various flags. During this event our small church saw the attendance for our Sunday worship nearly doubled! The church was packed because several people in our community had heard about the “hidden treasure which unlocked a piece of local military history” and it was obvious that my excitement about this military plaque had spread beyond the walls of this church. The story, however, does not end here.
My search in the attic continued after I found the military plaque. Since this is an old church I suspected that there were more gems to be found. Behind a box or two I found another plaque. This one was created to commemorate the renovations of this church in 1966. There was yet another plaque entitled “Roll-Call” in memory of those who had passed away. I later discovered this plaque came from the Gravenhurst congregation after their church amalgamated with the Bracebridge congregation following a fire. These old plaques are far more than ancient relics of a church and generation past, they are a chapter in heritage that is living and on-going.
After the attic was thoroughly mined, a project soon began. The plaques are now no longer hidden away, but rather they are proudly displayed in our foyer. Wood lettering was created to name the collection “Our Heritage.” A collage of photographs that hangs in the centre of the heritage wall provides the visual image of how this church and the Gravenhurst church appeared in the past. A new memorial plaque was created to honour and remember those who have passed away since the amalgamation of the two congregations. The story, however, does not end there either.
Restoring these plaques to a place of honour in the church is a far more significant exercise than merely wishing for the “good old days” to return. On the day we unveiled our heritage project, I stressed two themes during the message. As Bishop Marston has said, “Because we have a heritage we have a mission.” I challenged my congregation to consider the next piece for our heritage project because the things we do today will become the heritage and the legacy we leave for the next generation to come.
The second theme emphasized with the unveiling of our heritage project is that remembering the past provides a reference point for our current behaviour today. Our military plaque is a testimony to the faithfulness of God. The plaque commemorating the renovations of the 1960s remind us of the vision for the church once held by a previous generation. The new memorial plaque, dedicated to the glory of God, in memory of Thelma Matchett and in remembrance of those who once worshiped at New Hope Free Methodist Chruch, tells us that “Love lives on forever in each memory and thought of these special ones.” Celebrating our history is not an empty academic exercise meant only for those who enjoy watching The History Channel, it is the reminder that we are not alone. Without a remembrance of the past, there is the temptation to think that we are the first generation of Christians faced with various challenges that plague the church today. Our heritage project is the voice of our ancestors cheering us on in that great cloud of witnesses, and their loud voice cries out for us to remember that this church did not just spring up over night, but rather it was built prayer-by-prayer, pastor-after-pastor, for over 100 years. And because we have a heritage, we have a mission. There is work to be done.
The Bracebridge congregation can trace its roots to the work of Charles H. Sage.
During the fall of 1876, Sage said that he went to the North Michigan Conference of the Free Methodist Church “…free as a bird and told the Lord I was ready for any field of labor. When the appointments were read, the last one was, ‘ Canada , C.H. Sage.’ When I received the blessing of holiness I just signed the blank, and asked God to fill it out. I had turned my life over into the hands of God and asked him to do with me as seemed good to him … but it seemed to me that this would crush me.” Sage came to the Muskoka area for evangelistic meetings, and as an overwhelming response to the Gospel developed Sage knew he had to find co-laborers. Two women responded to this need in 1879. Miss Maggie Jerusha Hagle and Miss Valtina Brown began with class meetings of 32 people and this started the Bracebridge Free Methodist Church . Years go by, 127 of them to be exact, and it is my privilege to be the 51st pastor of this congregation.
It is a thrill to see guests in our church examining these plaques, and in particular the military plaque always seems to receive the most attention. These historical markers remind us of what it took to bring us here. They remind us that the story is not complete and that our work today becomes the heritage and the next chapter for the following generation. Imagine the state of the church if we would all follow the example of Charles Sage and “… just signed the blank, and asked God to fill it out!” Regardless of whether your congregation is 100 plus years old, or a recent church plant, we all have a great and glorious heritage, and we all have a mission. The story does not end here!
Written by Matthew McEwen
Pastor of Bracebridge Free Methodist Church
Useful websites relating to military searches:
1) Veterans Affairs – Virtual War Graves: http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=collections/virtualmem
This site contains a registry of information about the graves and memorials of more than 116,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who served valiantly and gave their lives for their country.
2) National Archives Web Site: Soldiers of the First World War: http://www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/020106_e.html
An index to those personnel files of soldiers from WWI, which are held by the National Archives. To date, over 800,000 images of Attestation papers have been scanned and are being made available on-line.
3) National Archives Web Site – WWII Veterans http://www.genealogy.gc.ca/10/100907_e.html
Military personnel files include documentation about enlistment, discharge, military units served with, and may also include other documents concerning medical history, medals awarded, personal evaluation reports and dental charts. There is no online database for these records. Access Restrictions: Access to personal information relating to an individual who is still living requires that person’s signed consent. If the individual has been deceased for less than 20 years, limited information may be released to immediate family. Proof of death and relationship must be provided. There are no restrictions on access to information relating to an individual who has been deceased for more than 20 years. Proof of death is required.
4) The Memory Project: http://www.thememoryproject.com/peace_index.cfm
An organization seeking to preserve the stories of veterans in a digital archive. This is also a valuable research tool for students and an excellent resource for educators.