In the annals of history, Knox Church has not existed a particularly long time but it has been in existence almost as long as the town of Vankleek Hill itself. Simeon Vankleeck came to this area in the late 1790’s and about 25 years later Simeon Vankleeck Jr. donated the land on which the first Presbyterian Church was built.
Throughout its history the church and congregation have had strong ties with Scotland and the Church of Scotland. Many of the immigrants to this area were Scottish. Many spoke Gaelic. Many were Presbyterians. So what was more natural than that they should want their own traditional forms of worship, if possible in their own language – though not all had the Gaelic. One of the stipulations until the end of the 19th century was that the minister should, if possible, be able to preach in Gaelic. Those ministers who did not speak Gaelic called on neighbouring ministers for special occasions. It was a bilingual Church and some members can still remember worshipping at Gaelic services. The original church was built on the site of what is now the Manse on John Street. It was described as “a stone building 30′ X 40′ with 17′ walls and 10 Gothic windows” according to the Treadwell diaries as quoted by the late Douglas Hamly in his biography of John McLaurin – the first minister. He came from Breadalbane, Scotland, was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and a Church planter. He was responsible for building St. Columba Church, Kirk Hill, the Church in Vankleek Hill and St. Andrew’s Church, L’Orignal. He also started the congregation in Hawkesbury. The congregation soon outgrew the original stone church – in fact in 1846 there was complaint from the supply minister that it was a struggle to find his way to the pulpit.
The second church was built in 1860 to accommodate the increased number of worshippers. It was known as the Brick Church and was built at the cross roads on the site now occupied by the town hall. By the end of the century it was becoming obvious that the Brick Church was too small to hold the congregation comfortably and a decision was taken to build a new church. The original motion was made at the Kirk Session on March 24, 1896 that “the building committee secure a site for the new Church”. The building committee consisted of Malcolm McCuaig, Martin Sylvester, William H. McKenzie, John Hunter, Alex H. McInnes, F. McKillican, Alex McCaskill, James Barr, Thomas Tweed, A. N. Cheney and J. S. McIntosh. The membership of the congregation at the time was 404. The site chosen for the new church was close to the site of the original stone church and burial ground. It took an act of Provincial Parliament (a Private Members Bill) to allow the cemetery to be moved (to what is now McLaughlin Cemetery) and the church built. It was not until May 24, 1900 that the corner stone was laid. This was an event of historic importance in the town and in the church. People came from Ottawa and Montreal as well as the surrounding area. The ceremony was fully reported in the Eastern Ontario Review and makes fascinating reading. It was a stone church with seating for 600 people and a basement in which the Sunday School could be accommodated. It measured 75′ X 60″, had a 16′ square tower and cost $20,000 to build. At the time of laying the corner stone $17,000 had been subscribed. The work continued well until the 20th September. That morning the Rev. John MacLeod climbed to the top of the scaffold to inspect the work and the wall collapsed. He and two of the builders were killed. Work continued and the new church was dedicated June 16, 1901 with the Rev. Principal Grant of Kingston being the guest preacher.
On its 170th anniversary in 1995, Knox Church was presented with the trowel used by the Rev. A. B. Mackay of Montreal in the laying of the cornerstone, the gift of Mary Harvey of Brampton, Ontario, his great grand-daughter.
For the first 76 years of its life the church in Vankleek Hill was known as Vankleek Hill Presbyterian Church but on May 7, 1901 the congregation received permission from the Presbytery to change the name to Knox Church. The work of the congregation was spread to missions in the outlying areas. For many years there were mission stations at the Ridge, where a church was opened, and at Caledonia Flats. Summer students were employed to look after these areas with morning worship and Sunday School. There was also co-operation in missions with the local Methodist congregation. In 1910 there was a Joint Committee on Evangelism with the meetings being held in Knox Church for 10 days. How “successful” this campaign was is hard to tell but after another co-operative evangelistic campaign in 1914 conducted by Ritchie Bell (a student for the ministry at that time), there is a report of 61 people becoming members of Knox Church.
In 1917 the congregation suffered a major catastrophe: the church burned to the ground. The congregation was homeless – but not for long. The Methodists and the Baptists rallied around and granted the use of their sanctuaries. The church was rebuilt and 16 months later was rededicated. The cost, of course, had more than doubled. The insurance was inadequate and so the congregation had to borrow money. This caused some hardship but not enough to make it a matter of concern in the Kirk Session records for there were more serious concerns – namely the proposals for union with the Methodist and Congregational churches. The debate was long and sometimes acrimonious. In Knox congregation 66 members voted for the union and 229 voted against. There would be a continuing Presbyterian Church in Vankleek Hill! Some of those who voted in favour joined the United Church at that time but the majority gathered round, buckled down and paid off the mortgage. The history of the church since the “Union” had been relatively quiet.
The work of the church went on under the long ministry of Rev. Edwin Preston. This was followed by three shorter ministries: the Rev. Gordon Faraday (1949-52), the Rev. Harold Funston (1953-56) and the Rev. Douglas Fox (1956-61). The Rev. James McGowan came in November of 1962, stayed for almost 11 years and later retired in the area. He was succeeded by the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod who ministered to both St. Paul’s Church, Hawkesbury and Knox. He stayed for two years and was succeeded in 1978 by Rev. Robert Martin who came from the Church of Scotland – in one sense bringing history round in a full circle from the days when the Rev. John McLaurin came to this area. This Call has sometimes been referred to as “mail order ministry” since many of the negotiations were conducted by mail, telephone and tape recordings, a demonstration that the church in the late 1970’s was moving with the times. Perhaps we will move on to “e-mail” calls for future ministers!
Rev. R. Martin