|Sept. 6, 2002
Astorville parish celebrates its centennial
| The original St. Thomas D'Aquin Church built in Astorville in
Churches play an important part in the spiritual and social
life of a community, and anniversaries are a time for reflection and
celebration. I recently wrote about
the 125th anniversary of the first mass of the St. John's Roman Catholic Church
in Alsace 125 years ago. Today I
want to look at Roman Catholic religious services in the Astorville area,
originally called La Tete du Lac- the Head of the Lake- and later Levesqueville,
where the first church was built in 1902. Levesqueville
was named after J.A Levesque, a lawyer who was an outstanding leader and among
other things encouraged settlement in the area. Previous services were held by itinerant priests as early as
1886, and a small chapel was built on the shore of Lake Nosbonsing in those
days. The first church in
Astorville was a frame structure built in 1902 and burned shortly thereafter.
It was replaced by a fine brick structure in 1907 and replaced by the
current larger modern church in 1966. A
celebration this weekend will recognize 100 years of service to the community.
| The second St. Thomas D'Aquin Church built in 1907 and replaced in
The church, called St. Thomas D'Aquin is located in the
south end of East Ferris Township in the heart of Astorville.
The parish, part of the Diocese of Pembroke, takes in the north end of
Chisholm Township above River Road, the west end of Lake Nosbonsing, and a
similar distance to the north and west. The
church is primarily French but services are bilingual.
After a number of itinerant priests served the area on an
occasional basis, Father Antoin Astor became the first permanent priest
(1902-1916) and the community soon became known as Astorville.
This was apparently a concession to the English population, and J. A.
Levesque was not happy about the change. Astor
oversaw the building of the first church 100 years ago with help from people
from the area. In 1903 a small
school was built, and several societies were established for the parishioners. Ten priests have served the parish over the years, with the
current priest, Father Merlyn Etier, replacing Father Michael Costello who
served from 1986 to 2002.
When a new rectory was added to the church the existing
rectory was given to the Daughters of Wisdom, a teaching order that taught in
the local separate school. Their
rectory was later replaced by a new one. There
were several small schools, with a two-room school eventually built across from
the church. This was replaced in
1969/70 by a large new central school, Ecole St. Thomas D'Aquin, to serve the
French population in the Astorville, Chisholm, Powassan and Callander areas.
Volunteers are the backbone of the church's activities.
One outstanding volunteer who I greatly admired was local historian
Beatrice Bessette (1913-2001). She
helped me on numerous occasions on various questions and was invaluable resource
to the community on local history. She
provided information for the third Chisholm History Book on the S.S. #3 school
on the northeast corner of Chisholm Township where she taught from 1931-1935 and
again in the 1940s, and where her mother had previously taught.
The school was almost exclusively French and she served these students
well. She boarded across the road
with the Bessette family, marrying a son, Francis, and having eleven sons and
The large and dynamic township of East Ferris has for some
reason lacked a written history, until this year. Two volunteers, Germaine and Hector Perron, with help from
many others, have put together a 260-page history of St. Thomas D'Aquin parish,
its many families, and the history of the area for the centennial year.
Germaine came here to teach in the two-room school mentioned above and
married Hector Perron, whose father started Astorville's grocery store in 1920.
The book is in French and has sold 400 copies already, with very few left
and another printing possible. The
book looks at the past history, businesses, schools, families and the church,
and has several excellent maps. The
book contains 92 pages of photographs, with several photographs on each page.
I was pleased to see a picture of Beatrice Bessette receiving a medal
from the Pope's representative, and another from Bob Wood for her outstanding
work in the community. Claude Guillemete (1948-2000) the township Reeve through the
1990s, is well represented in the book, and it reminded me of the many hours I
spent with him as a travelling companion to meetings.
Logging and lumbering should be mentioned as an early part
of the development of Astorville, especially J.R. Booth's operation, centred at
Wasi Falls on Lake Nipissing. Many
Astorville men worked for Booth in the bush, on Lake Nipissing, on the
jackladder, on Booth's short railway, at the dumpsite in Astorville and on Lake
Nosbonsing, handling his logs. The
history book shows an excellent photo of the dump site at Astorville and a photo
of a group of local workmen in front of the bunkhouse there.
The Booth operation extended from 1885 to 1913, when the community began
looking for work. Father Astor was instrumental in the development of a mill
that last briefly on Lake Nosbonsing near Astorville (for further information on
the Booth operation see my articles #30, 31, and 32 on my website at www.pastforward.ca
under Heritage Perspectives.)
| The St. Thomas D'Aquin church today, celebrating its 100th
birthday this weekend.
The centennial celebration this weekend will include a Saturday evening
concert and review of the history of the parish.
At 9 am on Sunday Father Etier and a couple of rowers in period costume
will arrive at the site of the old chapel on Lake Nosbonsing where the wrought
iron cross from the second church will be blessed.
The cross will then be carried in a procession to the church, where it
will eventually be installed. A
mass will follow at 10am and a procession will again take place to the community
centre for a sold out parish feast. Congratulations
to the parish on their centennial, and to those responsible for the remarkable
history book. Good luck on your
celebrations this weekend.
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