Will the circle be unbroken?

The congregation singing “lustily and with good courage,” as Methodist founder John Wesley would have wanted, at Hazzard’s Corners Church this past Sunday. I apologize for the fuzziness of the photo; I felt strange taking pictures during a church service, so was trying to do it very speedily and discreetly. But at least it gives you a sense of the simple, pleasing style and proportions of this historic sanctuary.

This past weekend Raymond and I travelled to Queensborough specifically to attend the 155th anniversary service at beautiful and historic Hazzard’s Corners Church (about four and a half miles west of Queensborough) on Sunday afternoon. (I’ve written about this church a couple of times in the past, here and here.) It was the first time I had been in that old sanctuary for many years, and it was wonderful to be back.

As the plaque on the front of the church tells you, construction of Hazzard’s Corners Church as a place of Methodist worship started in 1857, though “prior to this, for many years, services or class meetings were held in local homes or in a log schoolhouse.”

The church was in continuous operation for a century, becoming part of the United Church of Canada at the time of church union (when the Methodists, Congregationalists and most Presbyterians joined forces to become the United Church in 1925). I have many happy memories of attending morning and evening services there as a child when my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, was the minister of the Queensborough-Hazzard’s-Cooper pastoral charge starting in 1964. In 1967, though, Hazzard’s Corners Church and Cooper United Church were closed as pastoral charges across the country were reorganized in response to decreasing church attendance. (Boy, if they thought they had a problem with church attendance in 1967, imagine what they would have thought had they known what the situation would be like today.)

Thanks to a few very dedicated people in the Hazzard’s area, though, Hazzard’s Corners Church has been well-preserved and is used twice a year for services that are popular in the immediate community and beyond: the anniversary service in August, and a Christmas service. (This year’s is on Sunday, Dec. 23, at 7:30 p.m.)

The Whaley Brothers, Brandon and Travis (and I’m sorry, I don’t know which is which; I’d hoped to speak to them after the service, but failed to catch them in time) performing to an emotional congregation (or was that just me?) the classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken? at the front of historic Hazzard’s Corners Church.

There were already a lot of cars parked in the lot (where the drive shed for the horses and buggies use to be; I can remember that building, though I am not quite old enough to remember the horses and buggies), and along the road, when Raymond and I pulled in well before the service started. It began with some songs by two very talented brothers, Brandon and Travis Whaley, of Trenton, playing mandolin, banjo and guitar and doing some lovely bluegrass-style harmonies. Out of place in a Methodist/United Church? It didn’t seem so at all. The Methodists have always loved to sing “lustily and with good courage,” as founder John Wesley directed them (you can read Wesley’s Directions for Singing in Worship, published in 1761, here), and when the Whaley boys invited the congregation to join in, we were happy to do so. Then there was a hymn sing with piano accompaniment by the amazing Bob Watson, who seems to have more fun playing good old-fashioned hymns than anyone I have ever seen.

And then the service proper, with Grant Ketcheson and his sister Bev Holmes, who both have been (along with their respective spouses, Gayle and Len) key players in keeping the Hazzard’s church operational, guiding us through.

There were some circles that were very pleasantly closed at that service, both for the gathering as a whole and for me personally. Let me explain.

The sermon was given by The Rev. Donald Vilneff, who has a strong community connection through his mother, Lois (Moorcroft) Vilneff. Lois and her brothers and sisters grew up in a house between Queensborough and Hazzard’s Corners, and I knew them well. I was a more-or-less contemporary of Lois and her brother Doug, and both of them were at the service. I hadn’t seen them in almost 40 years, so that was really something. Lois and I used to do 4-H homemaking courses together under the leadership of Isabelle Sager, and after the service we chatted about that and about her family. Doug, meanwhile – with whom I was in Grade 1 at Madoc Township Public School, with Gayle Ketcheson as our teacher (see what I mean about full circle?) – gave me a sense of the dairy-farming industry, in which he’s worked quite a lot, in Hastings County. It was a wonderful surprise to see them and their brother Jack again, and great to meet Lois’s daughter and, of course, her son the minister.

Grant and Gayle had asked if I would do the scripture reading, which I felt very honoured to do. Grant told the congregation that my father had been the last minister at Hazzard’s before it closed, and that he’d asked me to read because of that connection and because Raymond and I had returned to the community by buying the pastoral charge’s former manse. Another full circle.

And so many people whom I had known many years ago were there. The Ketchesons and the Holmeses, of course. Also Katherine (Burnside) Fleming and her husband, John; Hazzard’s was Katherine’s family’s church when she was growing up, but after it closed the Burnsides came to St. Andrew’s in Queensborough, where we were so lucky to have her as our pianist and choir leader.That woman (who has the voice of an angel) got more good music out of a small rural choir – which included yours truly, who has major difficulty staying in tune, so you can see the issues she faced – than anyone could rightly have been expected to. Harold Harris and his daughter, Heather, were there, as were Jack and Betty McMurray of Tweed; Jack is the brother of the late Pauline Harris, Harold’s wife and Heather’s mother and one of the nicest people this world has ever seen. There was Ruth Holmes, from Cooper (so nice to see a representative of that church on hand). And Ross Moorcroft, the father of my schoolmates Kathryn and Brian and Grant Moorcroft. And Bob Moorcroft, uncle of Lois and Doug and Jack, with whom I have another full-circle connection: until his retirement, Bob was a senior administrator at the Northumberland and Newcastle Board of Education, a body that I used to cover as part of my education beat when I was a young reporter at the Port Hope Evening Guide (no longer extant, but absorbed into Northumberland Today; don’t get me started). Poor Bob had to answer many, many telephone queries, some of them difficult, from this reporter.

After the service there was a social time, and while lemonade and cookies were being served in the vestry, I examined some of the old photos on the wall there. Interestingly, most were of the church women. I knew and fondly remembered so many of them who are no longer with us: Vera Burnside (Katherine’s mother), an exceptional elementary-school teacher and Sunday School teacher; Lydia Harris (Harold’s mother, who used to be the pianist at Hazzard’s); Lottie Blair, a widow who lived all by herself in the most amazing (and huge) brick mansion that you can imagine out in the outside-of-Madoc countryside; Winnie Ketcheson, mother of Grant and Bev, and the person who took over at the Hazzard’s piano from Lydia Harris, and continued on in that role at Eldorado United Church after Hazzard’s closed; Alma Moorcroft, one of the authors (along with her sister, Winnie Moorcroft, and Blanche Sandford) of the definitive history of the churches of Madoc Township, called Pilgrimage of Faith. And so on. I felt like I was among the saints as I looked at that photo and thought how all of them were probably looking down on us and smiling.

Toward the end of the service, young Brandon and Travis Whaley launched into “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It’s an old classic, and it speaks to the ties stronger than death that bind families and friends. The congregation joined in enthusiastically. On that afternoon at Hazzard’s Corners Church, the circle was, in so many ways, unbroken indeed. It had come full circle.

14 thoughts on “Will the circle be unbroken?

  1. Sounds like a wonderful day! I’m curious…do you ever have difficulty explaining such a rich experience to your Montreal pals?

    • Interesting question, Nancy. I guess the answer is that I let the blog speak for itself. Quite a few friends and colleague here read it, at least from time to time (I know this because they’ll mention a particular post sometimes), and I imagine that thanks to it they now know a lot more about my “churchy” past than they ever did before. Doubtless some urban folk are quite bemused at the sense of wonder and nostalgia I feel for those very simple old times in a very rural place. But they are much too nice and polite to express said bemusement!

  2. What a beautiful account of what sounds like a deeply moving day. As someone who has come full circle herself in some ways, returning to the province and community of her birth, I know how powerful those resonances can be. Lovely.

  3. My name is Emily Sandford and I am trying to pick up breadcrumbs along the path of my geneologica studies. I am related to Blanche Sandford, who co-authored the book on the Madoc churches. I remember coming to visit in the summers when I was a child. I most recently came to Madoc in February 2012 to revisit and photograph the tombstones in the two cemeteries where all of my ancestors on my father’s side are buried.

    • Hello, Emily! Lovely to hear from you. What connection are you to Blanche? I of course remember her, and also her son and daughter, Eric and Joyce. I have lost track of Joyce, but I see Eric’s photo in the local papers in central Hastings County thanks to his work at McKeown Motor Sales in Springbrook. As someone who should – and will, some day soon – be starting work on my own family research, I’d love to hear about your work. Do you have a copy of Pilgrimage of Faith, the book by Blanche and the Moorcroft sisters? They did an amazing job on that, and I am proud to say that I have an autographed copy.

  4. I stumbled upon your blog and was intrigued when I saw the name Vilneff. I recently found out that my grandfather, Biard D. Embury had a first wife by the name of Annie Mellzine Bartlett whose parents were listed on the marriage record as James Sheppard Villneff and Mary Ann Jane Lindsay. Is there any way that I can contact Rev. Donald Villneff to see if Annie was a part of his family and what happened to her?

    Phyllis (Embury) Chapman
    Elmira, Ontario

    • Hello, Phyllis! Vilneff is a well-known family name in the Hastings County area. I am going to make a couple of inquiries and should be able to email you back-channel with a name or two of people who might be able to help you. Donald Vilneff’s mother (though not a Vilneff by birth, obviously) grew up in the Queensborough area and I ran into her very recently at this year’s Hazzard’s service, so she will be a good starting point, though I don’t have her email address or phone number just yet. All best, and more soon!

      • Thanks Katherine, that would be great. I am leaving tomorrow for a 11 day bus tour around Ontario with the Irish Palatine Special Interest Group (part of the Ontario Genealogical Society), but I will have my laptop with me and the hotels all have wi-fi so I’ll be able to monitor my emails.

      • Phyllis, I have a contact for you! A person who’s an expert in the Vilneff family tree, at least in the Central Hastings County area. I will email you directly with the information. Cheers!

  5. Hi Katherine. What an interesting post. Maybe you know of a book, “Rural Ontario”, by Verschoyle Benson Blake and Ralph Greenhill (1969, University of Toronto Press, printed in the USA as I guess we have no printers “up here”). Anyway, the book has lots of black & white photos of old buildings in Ontario, including a beautiful one of the Hazzard’s Corners United Church, with a short description of the history. It is noted that the builders managed with very modest means to produce a building of great charm. It suggests Gothic style, but the doorway is Neo-classic. Mention is also made of a well-kept graveyard.

    I seem to recall that my grandmother mentioned that a younger sister (who died at fairly young age) was buried in Hazzard’s Corners so I’m guessing that the grave is at this graveyard.

    It’s nice to see that the building is still in good use and condition.

    • It is an absolutely lovely church, Sash, and will be in use again on the 23rd of this month as it hosts the annual candlelight Christmas service at 7 p.m. (You should come!) All the services held at Hazzard’s are very well-attended, but at the Christmas one the place is packed. Yes, I do know the book Rural Ontario – we had a copy at the Manse when I was growing up! I intend to either find that copy or rustle myself up a new one.

    • This is wonderful, Sash – thank you! And I trust you and other readers will be glad to know that Grant, who is quoted in the article, is still very much a driving force behind the wonderful services at lovingly preserved historic Hazzards Church.

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