In 2015 the Newfoundland and Labrador Conference of the United Church of Canada celebrated 200 years of Methodism in Newfoundland. Delegates were suitably proud of this heritage as virtually every United Church in the province has either a direct Methodist history or is the post-Union offspring of former Methodist churches. Indeed, it’s not a significant exaggeration to say that at the time of Church Union in 1925 most Methodist churches in Newfoundland simply changed the denominational name on their street sign to ‘United’, and then carried on more-or-less as before. There are, however, two exceptions.
Two churches in the Bay of Islands actually amalgamated Presbyterian and Methodist congregations, thereby becoming true products of the Church Union movement. Both noticeably slanted toward Methodism after 1925, but their origins include solid strains of Presbyterianism. What follows is a short history of one of those two churches: First United Church, Corner Brook.
Presbyterian roots, Methodist trunk, United Church crown.
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First set out in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and later altered to include all of the West Coast of Newfoundland, the Bay of Islands area was subject to ‘French Shore’ fishing rights. Captain James Cook's famous survey of 1767 reported no inhabitants in the Bay of Islands area. Whether this was literally true is open to question, but probably there were no permanent residents who maintained houses. French fishers were seasonal and the Qalipu Mi’kmaq people did not reside in long-term fixed settlements. French treaty rights to the region were not formally relinquished until 1904, but by then French fishing activity had already been shifting north along the Northern Peninsula for almost a century. As French influence waned, English speaking settlers began moving into the Bay of Islands.
The arrival of the Presbyterian Church
By 1864 a sawmill was operating on the Humber Arm, and by 1865 the Church of England established a parish based at Birchy Cove (Curling). Roman Catholic clergy soon followed, and not long afterward Presbyterian ministers like Rev. R. Archibald also began calling intermittently from Nova Scotia, drawn by settlers who had moved to the Bay of Islands from Sheet Harbour, NS. [see note 1]
Rev David Creelman was the first resident Presbyterian minister, arriving in 1876 and immediately establishing a Sunday School. The following spring Rev Creelman and two ruling elders, Angus Morrison and Christopher Fisher, established the Session of the Congregation of the Bay of Islands.
The inaugural Presbyterian service was held at Alex Petries’ house on July 25, 1877, and by September communion was celebrated with eighteen members. Rev Creelman left the Bay of Islands in 1880, but his work laid the earliest foundations for First United Church.
Rev Creelman's time was followed by eight ministries of relatively short duration.
As part of Halifax Presbytery the Bay of Islands was always a remote outpost.
Most of the clergy were Ordained Missionaries. These newly graduated ministers
may have had enthusiasm to share the gospel, but when considering the
remoteness and frontier ethos of the West Coast of Newfoundland many
probably preferred to show their enthusiasm closer to home.
The notable exception to this trend was Rev William C.
Morrison who served two pastorates: first as a younger man
from 1893 to 1899, and then again from 1917 to the time of
Church Union in 1925.
In addition to a church built at Birchy Cove, Rev Morrison also planned a second
Presbyterian building for the area. It opened in August 1898, not far from the mouth
of the Corner Brook Stream, between Birchy Cove and Humbermouth. Several
sawmills operated there, the largest and best remembered belonging to Christopher
Fisher. His sawmill was a main employer in the area and he provided much of the
building material and labour for what came to be known as the ‘little white church’.
It was set on the crest of the hill where today Park Street meets Main.
Rev. William C. Morrison (Archives)
1924. This view looking up Fisher’s Hill (from what is now near the corner of Mill Road) shows the Presbyterian Church in its original location. The newly constructed Glynmill Inn is visible in the upper right of the photo. (Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum and Archives)
The local Presbyterian cemetery was called Fairview, although locals usually called it Westside Cemetery. It actually predated the little white church, with burials recorded as early as 1894. Located across the stream from the church (near the current Herald Towers) it was removed in 1961 to make way for road redevelopment in the area. In what appears to be a poorly planned and shoddily executed manner, the remains of 140 plots were moved to the Presbyterian section of the new Mount Patricia Cemetery being constructed at Wild Cove. Some records from that era seem to have been lost, and some of those remaining are sketchy, so only 42 of the burials are identified – infants often by surname only. The burials appear to date from 1894 to 1919. Only a few individual headstones are present at Mount Patricia; a cairn was created from the remaining bits of headstone.
A view from 1930’s. On the right foreground: Fairview Presbyterian cemetery.
Middle: Sportsfield. Background: Westside. The mill is just out of the frame to the lower left.
(Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum and Archives)
The beginnings of the local Methodist Church
Methodism formally arrived on the West Coast in 1860 with the establishment of the Channel-St George's circuit. The initial area was vast, extending from beyond Cape Ray to Bonne Bay. Eventually split into smaller circuits, the Bay of Islands was part of the Bonne Bay circuit after 1873, but then placed back under St George's superintendency by the mid 1880's.
Missionaries like the Rev William Rex and Rev Darby made regular visits of the circuit. Rev Rex’s diary entry of August 30, 1884 appears to indicate that enough Methodists were living in the Bay of Islands to warrant a more extended visit, along with a formalizing of ties and the construction of a building. “Started for the Bay of Islands where I remained for a month and conducted 15 preaching services and visited from house to house. Settled the matter of Church contract and arranged for inside of Church to be finished.” Eventually this ‘school chapel’ (which, as the name implies, served both functions) was completed at Petries (to the immediate west of Birchy Cove) and a schoolteacher was installed by 1892.
Rev Darby’s diary entry for October 1892 was less ebullient than the tone offered by his predecessor, suggesting that Methodism remained a minority sect along the Humber Arm, struggling to maintain their building with a small congregation. Being a small part of a much larger circuit meant that clergy were absent from the area for weeks at a time - especially in less favorable weather. Having no single centre of population further added to the problem. By 1892 Methodist clergy operating out of Birchy Cove were preaching at as many as eleven different stations. [note 2]
This was in sharp contrast to the Presbyterian minister who could concentrate on Birchy Cove and Corner Brook as the two main preaching places (along with occasional services in Mount Moriah and Nicholsville). It would be another decade until an independent Bay of Islands circuit was established.
In 1903 a young candidate for ministry named Peter Bryce arrived and set about strengthening the Methodist cause. Methodism in the settlement at Corner Brook did not flourish, although Mr. Bryce's work was more successful in other parts of the Bay of Islands circuit. Soon the small chapel at Birchy Cove (renamed Curling after 1904) was enlarged, and another school chapel was established at Riverhead (Humbermouth) in 1906. This latter chapel would eventually grow into Humber United Church.
By 1913 Methodists had numerically surpassed the Presbyterians in the Bay of Islands, but in terms of effective ministry they were still hobbled by being spread over 100 miles of shore. It wasn't until after the Great War that some of the smaller preaching points were abandoned and Curling and Humbermouth were being ministered to by one clergy (an arrangement that would last for decades).
The Mill, the Townsite and Church Union
Based in Birchy Cove (Curling), Rev John Allan was the Presbyterian minister in the area for a full decade between 1903 and 1913. Under his leadership the two Presbyterian churches at Curling and Corner Brook held their own, but the lack of a major economic base in the area meant that significant growth would always be unlikely.
Considering its importance in the later history of the region, it is ironic that Presbyterianism on the Humber Arm was hurt not once, but twice, by the construction of paper mills. Part of the decline of Presbyterianism in the Bay of Islands can be traced to the founding of Grand Falls. The opening of the paper mill there in 1909 led to a population boom, and St. Matthews Presbyterian was built as a response – with clergy using the new railway to split time between the two places.
While Rev Allen retained a fondness for the Bay of Islands (and was ultimately buried at Curling), in his second pastorate as regional minister (1917-1925) Rev William C. Morrison considered the bustling town on the Exploits River a more promising mission field. He took up permanent residence there and left the Bay of Islands as a mission outpost, served only on periodic visits. Years before formal Church Union, this, along with increasing isolation from Halifax Presbytery brought on by the Great War, led local Presbyterians into cooperative ventures with their Methodist neighbours.
While Rev Morrison was preoccupied with the growing congregation in Grand Falls, everything changed along the central West Coast. In 1923 the Newfoundland Power and Paper Co [note 3] began operations on the Humber Arm. Over the next two years an entire planned town was laid out in the meadow east of Corner Brook Stream, including a hospital, a school, the Tudor Revival style Glynmill Inn, and several streets of housing – all of which were owned by the mill. Indeed, the mill dominated virtually all aspects of life in the new town.
Arial view of the Townsite not long after its construction. Note its orderly ‘Garden City Plan’, especially when compared to the random building approach in Westside (top right). The lower Townsite along West Street (middle right) featured the Glynmill Inn (#1), the first hospital (#2), Corner Brook School (#3) and the First United hall & manse (#4). The Presbyterian church building visible at the crest of Fisher's hill (#5). (Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum and Archives)
Simultaneous with the construction of the Corner Brook Townsite, in 1924-1925 Canadian Methodists, Congregationalists, Union Churches and about two-thirds of Presbyterians voted to unite. While none of the three full time Presbyterian Churches in Newfoundland voted for Church Union [notes 4 & 5], one can surmise that the Presbyterians of Corner Brook initially saw it as preferable to being a second tier mission outpost to what had become the main church in Grand Falls. In many aspects of ministry, they were already working with their Methodist neighbours anyway.
As early as August 17, 1923 mortgages were secured to build a church hall and manse. The first mortgage was for £2000 at 4½% from the Whitehall Trust Ltd, and a second mortgage of £2000 at 5½% was taken from the Law Debenture Corporation, Ltd; both of the City of London [note 6]. The hall was built within a year and dedicated in March 1925, several months before official Union was proclaimed. This large hall was used for worship until a new United Church was constructed. [note 7]
United Church Hall, Corner Brook. (Archives)
In early 1925 the Presbyterian church was moved about a hundred metres along Park Street to a place later occupied by the First United gymnasium and current Parkview Apartments. It served as the first Sunday School and remained part of the First United complex of buildings until the new church was completed two decades later, whereupon it was dismantled and used in the reconstruction of Curling’s Memorial United Church.
Early in 1925: moving the Presbyterian Church on wooden skids and rollers. (Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum and Archives)
Students of First United Church School, 1925 (Archives)
With a new hall available to meet most needs and the little Presbyterian church used for any other activities, the next order of business was to provide housing for clergy. What one commentator aptly described as a “commodious manse” was constructed directly north of the hall. By the standards of the day it almost certainly was one of the grandest houses in the town.
The Manse (Archives)
The great influx of families drawn by work in the paper mill changed the religious demographics of the area forever. Whereas Presbyterians had contended numerically with the Methodist Church on a local basis, on the Island as a whole they constituted only 0.7% of the population while Methodists counted 28% (1921 census). In the two years between the founding of the Townsite in 1923 and the proclamation of Church Union in 1925, Presbyterianism was rapidly displaced in the Bay of Islands and the prevailing religious culture of the new United Church became Methodist.
The new reality was further cemented when Methodist Rev C. R. Blount, became First United's first United Church minister. Under his direction 100 Methodist hymnbooks were ordered (although the title on the cover was changed to ‘United Church’). Inundated by this wave of Methodist influence some former Presbyterians became frustrated and are said to have left their newly created denomination, migrating to St. John the Evangelist (Church of England). Some stayed on though, and added to the denominational mix that eventually coalesced into First United Church.
United Townsite Cemetery, Montgomerie Street. In use since 1925.
Within the United Church tradition First United generally regards its antecedent denomination as ‘Methodist’, and certainly by 1925 this was overwhelmingly true. Most of its members had arrived in Corner Brook with a Methodist background, as did all subsequent ministers whose ordinations had predated Union. It should not be forgotten, though, that many of the deepest local roots of the congregation were Presbyterian. The baptismal, wedding and burial records, as well as the pulpit chair, remain as testament.
First United’s new building
First United grew rapidly and soon became self-supporting. Rev George Mercer
arrived in Corner Brook in 1929 and stayed for seven years. By all accounts he was
a blessing to both church and community. These were desperate times in
Newfoundland, as the Great Depression forced many to the edge of starvation.
Things were relatively better in Corner Brook, though, with over 2000 steady jobs at
the paper mill. Housing quickly spread beyond the Townsite, to include workers
homes in Humbermouth and Westside. Long-established United Church
congregations continued in Curling (Presbyterian-Methodist) and Humbermouth
(Methodist), while in the official Townsite First United became noted for its professional and management class.
Rev. G. L. Mercer (Archives)
On the front step of the church hall, 1936. Front Row - Mrs. D. Fisher, Mrs. Jessie Thistle, Mrs. J.P. MacLaurin, Miss Margaret Maddock, Mrs. George L. Mercer, Mrs. Ron Whyte; 2nd Row - Mrs. J.D. Roberts, Mrs. P. Chevalier, Mrs. Albert Hann, Mrs. Don Soper, Mrs. Hayward Osmond, Mrs. Ambrose Buckingham, Mrs. Arthur Winsor. 3rd Row - Mrs. Willis Manuel, Mrs. Max Pardy, Mrs. H. Ginn, Mrs. L.B. Clarke, Mrs. Jim Mayo; 4th Row - Mrs. Royd Elliott, Mrs. Claude Cook, Mrs. Willis Wiseman, Mrs. Walter Burton, Mrs. Walter Fradsham (Archives)
Many church members give electronically these days, but some still use offering envelopes that haven't changed much since the 1930's. (Archives)
By this time a new, larger building was needed, and as early as 1934 a major subscription was launched. During the first year $5000 was collected. About $3000 was added during each of the following two years, but eventually the lagging economy had an adverse affect and giving dropped off. [note 8]
In 1937 the new minister, Rev Ira Curtis, once again took up the challenge. W.D. McArthur of St. John’s was retained as architect. As a young man some of Peter Bryce's first church work included growing the struggling Methodist churches in the Bay of Islands. By 1937 Rev. Peter Bryce was the national moderator of the United Church of Canada, and on June 11, this old friend was welcomed back to the town to officially turn the sod for the new building.
In 1938 work began on the basement. It became an onsite cement block factory over the next winter. With over $20,000 raised and the walls partially built, the cornerstone was laid on June 29, 1941 by mill manager H.M.S. Lewin (who was clearly the most important person even though Governor Walwyn of the British Commission was also present.
External events continued to conspire against quick success as the Second World War
contributed to a shortage of labour and materials. There was considerable delay for
example, receiving the pews and furniture from the Globe Furniture Co. of Waterloo,
With the building still incomplete, in 1944 Rev Curtis took a new charge in St. John's
and was succeeded by Rev Bert Green.The final dedication was on September 8, 1946.
Rev Green was ill, but Rev Curtis returned for the ceremony from St. John’s. Also on
hand was the last British Governor, Sir Gordon MacDonald, who addressed the
Rev R.B. Green
Dedication service, September 1946, with chairs set up along one side of the aisle. (Archives)
The church features a modified cathedral style sanctuary including a long nave with centre and side aisles. There are two small transepts. The chancel departed from standard cathedral style by its lack of open space. Surprisingly, it did not originally feature a Methodist-style communion rail (although one was added later). There was a small elevated space for a communion table, a further elevated pulpit was placed behind this, and then, for reasons known only to the architect, a sheer wall setting off the choir loft – which was accessed by a small, precariously winding stairway. The Hammond Organ was dedicated to the members of the congregation lost in the war.
At the time the building might have sat close to 600. While this was not notably large by Canadian standards, it was, undoubtedly, one of the more outstanding buildings of the pre-Confederation era in Western Newfoundland. (After some reconfiguration 450 packs the place today.)
A view from the mid 1940’s. From bottom right: Corner Brook School, then the First United Church Hall, the Manse, First United’s new building. The small white church to the rear of First United is the former Presbyterian Church (soon to be dismantled and used in Curling). In the centre of the frame is then the courthouse (now Museum & Archives), the Anglican Cathedral, and Bowaters Warehouse #2 - which doubled as Corner Brook rink (with natural ice), home to the senior hockey team until the opening of Humber Gardens in 1955. (Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum and Archives)
Members of the Official Board, 1950. Back: B. Butler, M. Burton, R. Manuel, R. Cooper, A.R. Stansfield, Geo. Warren, A. Alcock, R.W. Mills, J. Wheeler, S.D. Cook. Middle: T. Boland, A. Evans, Miss P. Stratton, Miss N. Clarke, Mrs. H. Bursey, Mrs. W. Fradsham, Mrs. A. Alcock, Mrs. H.P. Jerrett, W. Pelley, L. Pasher. Front: A.T. White, R.J. Dingwell, C. Tibbo, M.C. Strong, Rev. R.B. Green, MA, A.E. Reid, W. Wiseman, A.C. Puddester, R.O. Janes (Archives)Members of the Official Board, 1950. Back: B. Butler, M. Burton, R. Manuel, R. Cooper, A.R. Stansfield, Geo. Warren, A. Alcock, R.W. Mills, J. Wheeler, S.D. Cook. Middle: T. Boland, A. Evans, Miss P. Stratton, Miss N. Clarke, Mrs. H. Bursey, Mrs. W. Fradsham, Mrs. A. Alcock, Mrs. H.P. Jerrett, W. Pelley, L. Pasher. Front: A.T. White, R.J. Dingwell, C. Tibbo, M.C. Strong, Rev. R.B. Green, A.E. Reid, W. Wiseman, A.C. Puddester, R.O. Janes (Archives)
First United, early 1950's. The six-sided windows and doors provided a unique architectural style, while crow-stepped gables, shrubbery and ornamental fencing added charm. Most particularly, the louvered bell tower and gables were aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, many of these features were decidedly impractical in Western Newfoundland’s wet and snowy climate, and were replaced in later years with less pretty but more functional features. (Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum and Archives)
Over the next fifteen years First United added six large stained glass windows from Luxfer Studios. One over the choir loft was dedicated to congregation members who served in the Second World War, and one above the gallery dedicated in honour of the chairman of the building committee, Albert Bentley. New windows in each transept were dedicated in 1954 and 1955: by the Fisher family, in memory of Dr George Baggs, and in memory of departed members of the Townsite Ladies Aid.
The latter window was indicative of the (mostly) friendly rivalry among various groups present in the congregation. No sooner had the Townsite Ladies dedicated their window than the Westside Ladies Aid also presented a new window for the south transept. This rivalry among different towns would soon lead to amalgamation in the civic realm, but sadly had the opposite outcome in the United Church.
Late 1950's. A view from Three Bear Mountain facing toward Westside. First United in centre, with the manse to the left. Note that the Odd Fellows Hall is still present on the extreme left (beyond the garage) but the old Presbyterian building is no longer in behind the main church. Note also the sapling size of some of the maples planted on the front lawn. (Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum and Archives)
In 1956 the towns of Corner Brook (Townsite), Curling, Corner Brook West (Westside), and Corner Brook East (Humbermouth), amalgamated to form the largest municipality on the West Coast. Church unity was more difficult to achieve. The United Church was long established in Curling, and at Humber United (which opened a new building on Humber Road in 1956). Since 1953 First United had operated a Sunday School at Greenings Hill, just off Caribou Road, for those living in Westside. A few years later full services were being held there, and on January 23, 1966 Oakland United was officially dedicated.
Westside Sunday School. (Courtesy of Corner Brook Museum & Archives)
Each of the four former towns within the City of Corner Brook now had a United Church. Oakland remained affiliated with First United until the 1970’s though, with the Associate Minister from First United serving part time as minister at Oakland. By the late 70’s almost all of that minister’s time was spent at Oakland and the new Westside church became fully independent.
The Post war boom
First United experienced the same general prosperity as most Canadian Churches
during the post war decades. Revs Hoddinott (1950-55), MacLean (1955-64),
Baker (1964-74) and Mayberry (1971-79) all enjoyed solid pastorates during these
years. Beginning in 1956 and continuing for the next thirty years, fourteen Assistant
and Associate Ministers helped with the workload, each serving for about two years.
Congregational growth was further evidenced in the construction of a new gymnasium,
kitchen and meeting rooms in 1956-58.
A notable feature of congregational life during these years was a gathering for young
women of the church. Led by Mrs. Bentley, it was eventually named in her honour. Over the years hundreds of women at First United belonged to the Bentley Club.
Rev. J. Neil MacLean
In the Canadian publishing industry, a few thousand sales makes a book a bestseller.
The First United Church Women have surpassed this standard many times over with the Cook Book. With a simple title and style, this collection of traditional Newfoundland recipes was first published in 1941. Nine editions and over 29,000 copies later, it is still selling more than 100 copies per year. As a result tens of thousands of dollars have been raised for the Church’s ongoing work.
Back Row - Elizabeth Lindsey (later Palmer), Rita Hann, Florence Penney, Marjorie Goodyear, Hazel Ferguson, Marjorie Fifield; Front Row - Jean Alcock, Sybil Cooper, Mary Powell, Winnie Wheeler
Meeting new challenges
After a short interim ministry by Rev Lloyd Mack (1979-80) Rev John Adams arrived at First United in 1980, ministering for nearly a quarter century. Times were changing and the church faced new challenges. Sunday attendance became more sporadic. The end of the baby boom saw Sunday Schools begin to decline.
In addition, facilities were approaching the time for major repairs. Almost $400,000 was raised for this purpose. A further $385,000 was raised to overhaul the organ. In 1996 the fifty year old Hammond was replaced with a Casavant, making it one of the best pipe organs in the province. The following year Dr Gary Graham took over the music program.
Rev Adams retired in 2004, and was succeeded by Rev Dr Wayne Cole. It was felt by many that Corner Brook had too many United Church buildings for a city of 20,000 – each one requiring its own upkeep. Preliminary plans were drawn up to sell all existing United Churches and build one large church somewhere in a good location. First United supported this plan but the proposal fell victim to an inability for all parties to make final decisions.
Preliminary architectural drawing of the proposed Corner Brook United. (Archives)
When this initiative failed First United had to assess where they were in terms of continuing their ministry with their existing facilities. The church gym had fallen into severe disrepair. It had to be entirely renovated or demolished. After extensive study, in 2008 it was decided to keep the structure and retrofit the space into ten geared-to-income apartments, a new lift and new church offices. Matt Churchill and Paul Snow led a two million dollar partnership with Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp, and Parkview Apartments were opened in 2013.
The aging church building also required significant work. The basement hall was renovated and a new commercial kitchen was added in 2013. The roof, gables, eaves and tower were all re-done in 2014-15.
A dedicated music room was constructed in 2016.
Rev Cole retired in 2010 and Rev Myles Vardy began two years of service. Rev Harry Whitehorne followed with a year and a half of intentional interim ministry. Rev John van Vliet arrived in 2014.
First United Church with manse, painted by Michael Bennett, 2015.
One of the most visually obvious changes around the church occurred in the fall of 2017 with the removal of the manse and wrought iron property fence from the church grounds. The manse hadn't actually housed a minister for well over a decade and had fallen into considerable disrepair. Aesthetically boring but very practical parking space was created with further work on the grounds scheduled for 2018. Meanwhile, inside the building major changes were planned for the chancel area at the front of the church.
First United continues as a vibrant church, with a building used by both congregation and community on most days and nights. New challenges in the life and work of the Christian church are never far away though, as each generation assess the ongoing role of faith in their lives.
1. In the last decades of the 19th century there were several population clusters scattered around the Bay of Islands, particularly along the Humber Arm. Initially, Summerside rivalled Birchy Cove as a main centre of commerce. Sawmills grew up a few miles closer to the Humber River, around the Corner Brook Stream. In 1901 the Reid Railway reached the West Coast and produced an instant settlement near its station and yards at Humbermouth. The arrival of the railway tipped the balance and ensured that the main focus of population and activity moved permanently to the south shore of the Humber Arm.
2. The Bay of Islands Methodist circuit included outer bay communities such as Lark Harbour and Woods Island; Middle Arm and Goose Arm; Petries, Georgetown and Birchy Cove (all within the current area of Curling); Corner Brook, Humbermouth and Summerside. In addition, stops were sometimes made as far inland as Spruce Brook (George's Lake) and all the way up the Humber Valley past Deer Lake.
3. Seeking to diversify the economy of Newfoundland Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires proclaimed his intention to “put the hum on the Humber.” In conjunction with British industrial interests Newfoundland Power and Paper Company was formed in 1923. A mill was soon constructed at Corner Brook along with a power plant at Deer Lake. The mill’s name was formally changed to International Power and Paper a few years later, and then sold to Bowaters in 1938. The mill gave the area prosperity, especially in relation to much of the rest of the Island. In 1984 Bowaters sold the operation to Kruger who renamed it again: Corner Brook Pulp and Paper. The mill is still an important feature of the local economy although today it employs about one-tenth the workforce of its heyday.
4. Prior to 1925 there were three self-supporting Presbyterian churches in Newfoundland: St Andrew’s ‘The Kirk’ in St John's, St Andrew’s Harbour Grace, and St Matthew’s Grand Falls. There were also three missions: Bay of Islands, Bell Island and Harrington Harbour. In the final vote in 1924 all three churches were non-concurring – that is against Union. The Bell Island mission closed. The Harrington Harbour mission went in to Union, but it was then lost to Newfoundland in the 1927 Labrador/Quebec treaty anyway. (The 1937 Book of Newfoundland also mentions a Presbyterian mission at Deer Lake, but the Presbyterian Church’s Acts and Proceedings did not include it. Was it a house church of short duration?) That left only the Bay of Islands mission comprised of congregations at Corner Brook and Curling. These Presbyterian congregations joined with the local Methodists to form First United and Memorial United churches.
5. The Kirk in St John’s and St Matthew’s Grand Falls continue their ministry today. Harbour Grace remained Presbyterian after 1925 but was unable to gain traction and closed during the Great Depression. Its loss was offset, though, by a surprising addition. Church Union included Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists – so it could be assumed that Queen’s Road Congregational Church in St. John’s would naturally join the United Church. It stayed out of Union in 1925 and thirteen years later swam against the current and joined the Presbyterians instead, continuing today as St. David’s Presbyterian. A post war church plant in Wabush and a second coming to Corner Brook in the 1950’s were unable to be sustained, so the number of Presbyterian Churches in the province remains at three.
6. After the great bank crash of 1894 Newfoundland pegged its dollar to the Canadian dollar, so in exchange value they operated (more or less) as the same currency. Comparing British pounds to dollars is more difficult, as historic exchange rates between differing currencies is complicated with different wage and price structures, as well as differing rates of inflation. Exact calculation is almost impossible but depending on the transaction terms, £2000 traded for about $9500 in 1923. The two mortgages taken from City lenders would therefore amount to approximately $19,000 — in 1920’s dollars.
7. For many years this hall was known locally as the Odd Fellows Hall because they continued to use it after the United Church moved into their new buildings.
8. This ‘failure’ requires some perspective. Raising this much money in Newfoundland during the darkest days of the Great Depression was an astounding feat and is testimony to the sacrificial generosity of the congregation. Undoubtedly, it is also indicative of the relative prosperity enjoyed by Corner Brook in general, and members of First United in particular.
This thumbnail history of First United Church is only a beginning. At this point it is slanted toward institutional history and is rather slim on the people, activities, and faith that actually make and drive a church. It will have to suffice until more research is done using primary documents.
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Photos and documents from First United Church archives are noted with the word 'Archives'. Additional photos were gratefully received from the Corner Brook Museum and Archives. Additional information was graciously provided by the Cavan Library at Knox College, Toronto. The Bay St. George Wesleyan Methodists Centennial History and an unpublished history of Humber United were used to round out a few places in the narrative.
Thank you to Ches Hollett,, Janet Spurrell, Sandra Pretty and Charles Cameron for their help in this project.
John van Vliet
August 2016, 12 copies
revised January 2017, 20 copies
revised February 2018, 30 copies