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Sept. 6, 2002

Astorville parish celebrates its centennial

The original St. Thomas D'Aquin Church built in Astorville in 1902

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 1966.

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 one daughter.

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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