A week ago today, Raymond and I attended the annual summer service at historic Hazzard’s Corners Church (and I wrote about it here). This afternoon there was another annual service at a historic church in the area, though unfortunately we were not able to attend. (Next year!) The church in question is the Old Hay Bay Church, in Adophustown, Lennox and Addington County (the county east of Hastings), the oldest Methodist building in Canada (erected 1792), the second-oldest church in Ontario, and a national historic site. The fantastic blog Ancestral Roofs (ancestralroofs.blogspot.ca) has a terrific post about the church’s history and architecture (and possible personal connection to the author) here.
I remember attending one of those annual Hay Bay Church services many years ago when I was a kid growing up at the Manse. I was young enough – maybe six or seven? – that I wasn’t particularly interested in history or architecture, though I do recall thinking that the simply styled building looked more like a barn than what I thought a church should look like. The only other thing I remember is thinking that there were better things to do with a Sunday afternoon than go to church. (Especially since we would doubtless have attended our regular service that same morning.)
But what I think of first when I think of Hay Bay Church is, for better or worse, not historic architecture or the old days of Methodist circuit riders. I think of a light-hearted bit of poetry composed on the fly by my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, many years ago while he was attending a gathering of, I believe, the Bay of Quinte Conference of the United Church of Canada.
I think I’ve got the story straight, though I’m doing it entirely from memory, and it was long, long ago. My understanding is that one of the topics of discussion at this conference meeting was what to do about the gravestone of The Rev. William Losee, one of those early Methodist circuit riders who travelled from church to church (or, barring actual church buildings, meeting to meeting) on horseback. Losee had been a Methodist missionary from New York State to the wilds of the townships on the north shore of Lake Ontario in the Bay of Quinte area, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. (You can read the very complete William Losee entry here). It was he who got the building of the Hay Bay Church off the ground, so he’s a huge star in Hay Bay lore. The aforementioned Dictionary of Canadian Biography tells us this: “Although he served in Upper Canada only about three years, Losee effectively laid the groundwork for what eventually became the largest Protestant denomination in Canada … (A)s a preacher ‘he was impassioned, voluble, fearless, and denunciatory, cutting deep and closely, and praying to God to ‘smite sinners!’ ”
Losee died in 1832 back in his native New York State, and was buried there. Almost a century and a half later, things got interesting: “In 1969 the grave was excavated for road-widening purposes,” the online biography dictionary tells us. “His gravestone and that of his wife were removed to Ontario – to the cemetery beside his Hay Bay meeting-house.” What it doesn’t say is that (if my recollection of Dad’s recounting of the discussion at the Bay of Quinte Conference meeting, which quite probably was in 1969, is accurate) the initial plan was to transport not just Losee’s tombstone, but in fact his remains, to Hay Bay. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is that when the grave was excavated, Bill had, shall we say, followed the “dust to dust” precept to the letter; there was nothing left.
This struck my father as funny, possibly because he’d been sitting through too many hours of meetings that day already. (Any of you who have to attend meetings regularly will know what I mean.) So as the discussion about moving the gravestone and the issue of the no-longer-extant remains went on, Dad put his trusty and ever-present fountain pen to paper and composed a little bit of rhyme about the whole deal. I think he may have read it out to the gathering at some point, to general amusement. If anyone reading this was there, please let me know.
I imagine Dad would have kept the original manuscript of his Losee poem somewhere in his Conference files, though filing and keeping track of documents was not his strong point. Someday I may come upon it when I go through those files, something I have long intended to do but that is a major undertaking and a large commitment of time. Fortunately I remember most of the poem; Dad was wont to recite it on occasion, and it kind of stuck. I think I’ve lost at least one verse, and I can’t remember the title, but here’s what my memory bank can come up with:
This here stone once stood alone
Way off in a far country.
A preacher from Hay Bay there was laid away;
His name was Bill Losee.
They built a road where the gravestone growed,
Where Bill had lain so long;
Disturbed his rest, for they thought it best.
(Some folks might think it wrong.)
And then I think there’s a verse about deciding to dig up and repatriate the remains of Bill, but I am afraid it is lost to my memory and thus, I fear, to posterity. Anyway, the poem continues:
But what they found down under the ground
Where Bill had wasted away
Was only dust and bits of rust
And silent, waiting clay.
Oh what a loss! – that Bill was dross,
That nothing remained to keep.
But his stone will stand in this far-off land
While Bill goes on with his sleep.
Just writing it down doesn’t really do it justice; you had to hear the (not-terribly-sincere) emotion in Wendell’s voice when he recited it. The way his voice would lower and slow down for “silent, waiting clay.” And the shock/horror when it came to the “Oh what a loss!” part.
Anyway, Bill Losee is safely remembered in the cemetery at the Old Hay Bay Church, which owes its existence to him. Even if he himself is no more than dross, his name and his tombstone are there. Come next August, I hope to visit for the annual service and go ’round and see it. And maybe I’ll recite Dad’s poem in his honour.