The Pioneer Years
Zion United Church, as it is known today, stands proudly on a hill in the small community of Mitchell’s Corners just outside Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. Surrounded by farmland and in more recent years, with the addition of many new developments in the near vicinity, it provides a picturesque background for this growing community. It did exist before this however, if not as a church, then at least as a congregation. It was known variously as “Coleman’s Corners” (1847-48) and “Coleman’s Branch” (1848-49)
This church first appears as “Zion” in the Wesleyan Methodist Church Missionary Society Report for 1849-1850. Missionary Society Reports for the years 1847-1850 confirm that the name was changed from Coleman to Zion due to the profound similarity in the names of those attending Coleman’s in 1847-49 and those attending Zion in 1849-50.
Whether one dates the beginnings of one’s pastoral charge from the formation of the congregation or from the construction of the first building is a matter creating great discussion. Yet there does exist a deed for the land in which the present church stands and that deed is dated as May 13, 1851 between Bartholomew Mitchell, wagon maker, his wife Jane Mitchell and Anthony Washington, Stephen Washington, William Baker, William Bane, Joseph Langmaid, James Stainton, and George Washington (not the president), Yeoman, the trustees of the Zion Congregation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, in connection with the English conference. Thomas Mitchell the village blacksmith and William P. Crone, Yeoman witnessed the deed.
One of the first families to settle in the Zion area, formerly known in the early 1800’s as Saxon Settlement, was John and Jane Coleman from Cornwall England. They settled in 1830, about ½ mile west of where the church stands today. It is thought to be in the Coleman kitchen and dining room where the first religious services were held. In later years a second place of worship was the upper story of a large frame, lath and plaster building just south of the present church. The church was built on its present location in 1849 with the first services taking place in February of 1850. The cemetery behind the church had already been established before the church and one of the first burials to take place was that of John Coleman in 1840.
In 1850 when the church was finished, an open shed was built across the road from the church on land owned by James Stainton (1814-1865). This shed gave shelter to horses bringing their owners and families to church in buggies or sleighs.
There were no musical instruments in the church originally and music leader Mr. Garbutt used a tuning fork to get the proper pitch for singing. On special occasions a melodeon was brought up the road from the Stainton home. In 1862, under the direction of a Mr. Sinclair, who had a gold medal in vocalism from Aberdeen Scotland, Zion had one of the first choirs in the area. It was at this time that a balcony was built in the church to accommodate the increasing attendance.
In 1904 eleven energetic Zion ladies formed the WMS (Women’s group). Every way and means, was thought of to raise funds for the church. At that time, the church and Sunday School were heated by box-stoves, one at each end of the church and one in the old Sunday School room. Lighting was by hanging oil lamps that could always be relied upon to “smoke” now and then.
The men took care of getting the fuel for the stoves and by having an annual wood cutting “bee” and during the winter horses pulled the large slabs on sleighs to the church. The story has been passed down that periodically once a tree was cut down, a break was declared before the arduous task of cutting up the tree and a game of Lost Heir would be played on the stump of the tree.
There were always fund-raising projects going on at the church. One unique project was the oyster suppers that had the oysters cooked in milk in boilers on the stove. The kitchen was a small little room east of the choir loft. Chicken pie suppers, box socials, Lost Heir card parties and strawberry socials were also annual events.
Quilting parties were always a welcome get-together held in someone’s home. Quite often ladies came in the morning with their children who were too young to go to school and usually stayed all day. The men generally came in for supper and enjoyed a social evening later that day. In one instance a quilting “bee” left twenty or more men, women and children stranded for the night at the home of Walter and Anne Langmaid as a severe snowstorm blew in blocking all the roads. With so many in the house a special breakfast of homemade donuts was made the next morning.
When World War 1 broke out, the women knitted clothes and sent many blankets and parcels of food overseas. Likewise, when WWII began, further donations were sent abroad through the Red Cross and the Blood Bank.
Before 1910 the shed, which was across the road, was torn down and a larger frame shed was built at the north end of the church. This is where people now parked their horses and buggies and in later years cars. During the cold months of the winter it was common to see cars parked at the church with their engines covered with buffalo rugs to keep the engine somewhat warm and above freezing. When not in use, the shed provided plenty of room for the socials, banquets and various suppers. For these special occasions the floor was scraped clean and covered with sawdust that filled the air with the aroma of freshly cut wood. In later years crushed stone replaced the sawdust. More practical but not as aromatic! By now, the oil lamps in the church itself were replaced with gas lamps.
In an old hockey arena in Toronto, on a hot June 10 day, the United Church of Canada was born. This brought together the members of the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Congregationalist Union of Canada. This was the culmination of an idea, which originally was discussed back in 1889 but was not taken seriously until 1904. Now in 1925 that idea had become reality. Zion was now part of the United Church of Canada.
Prior to 1933, the cemetery behind the church had become overgrown with weeds and grass. It basically had become an eye-sore in the area. By July 2, 1933 it had been entirely transformed. A new iron fence had been erected with field stone corners and gateposts lined with red maples ornamental trees. At the south end of the cemetery, a white picket fence was built in later years. No one was allowed in the cemetery until the gates were dedicated whereby people entered and decorated the individual graves of friends and family. Within a short time after this, electricity was installed in the church.
On September 17, 1939, a dedication service was held to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the church. To celebrate this occasion, the floor was sanded to a natural colour, painting was done, inside and out, new individual plywood seats were installed which were more comfortable than the previous pew benches, a new furnace which lasted until 1998, and seven memorial stained glass windows were installed. Many people came to the service and some had to listen in the Sunday School room by means of a loud speaker.
In April of 1957 the Zion Neighbourly Doubles Club (presently the “Happy Gang”) decided to have the first Strawberry Buffet Supper. This was to be held in June of that year and has been held in June every year since then. Since it was held in the old shed, nothing could be set up a day or two ahead of time as the birds had easy access to the inside of the shed. Also since there was no kitchen as such, hot water had to be carried in large milk cans as the dishes were done in the south corner of the shed and the well was not dug until 1962! That first Strawberry Supper had about 100 guests. Today it generally brings 500-600 people and involves all the members of the congregation.
In 1958 the new kitchen was built. This consisted of using part of the inside of the shed immediately north of the adjacent Sunday School. This also included two indoor washrooms. A new stove and silverware were also purchased at this time.
By 1964, due to the lack of space for the Sunday School, more local groups such as cubs and scouts looking for meeting facilities, a leak in the kitchen roof and a need for better catering facilities, it was decided that the shed should be torn down and a new facility put in its place. On May 2, 1965 with mixed feelings the shed was torn down, and by September 12, 1965 the official opening of the Christian Education wing took place. By 1968 a small meeting room above the kitchen was completed. This was used by the United Church Women (U.C.W.) for their various meetings and get-togethers.
In 1971 the local school needed extra room for their kindergarten class. The C.E. wing of the church provided all the space, service and materials they needed to have an effective class for the kindergartens. This lasted only for one year as room at the school then became available.
During a Board meeting on May 29, 1977, it was decided that the ceiling in the sanctuary needed fixing, as it was somewhat unstable in various areas. It was decided that since we were going to be in the mess of fixing the sanctuary we might as well do a complete make-over as this has not been done for 38 years and when you looked, there were many other areas of the sanctuary that were wearing thin. So, by February 12, 1978 the sanctuary had received a new ceiling, more lights, a new coat of paint, new shingles, new pews and wall-to-wall carpeting and two ceiling fans.
Always a work-in-progress, it was decided that the Sunday School area was not very heat efficient so in 1980 renovations to the Sunday School began. This involved lowering the ceiling, putting better insulation in the east and west walls along with an underlay and rug over the previously tiled floor.
Ever since 1912, Zion was on a pastoral charge with 2 other neighbouring churches those being in Hampton and Eldad. At a meeting in 1986 it was thought that with the growth in the area, three churches was more than one minister could handle effectively. So it was decided that Zion would become independent of the other two and form our own pastoral charge. On July 1, 1987 we held our first service as a single point charge. Still maintaining close ties with our neighbour churches, we combine services and choirs for special events and especially the Advent Carol Service. It was also in the fall of 1987 that we hosted our annual Beef Barbecue. Similar to the Strawberry Supper, we serve between 200-300 people. The beef is barbecued onsite, and the buffet is extensive. This continues to be one of our events, which ushers in not only the “back-to-school” time but the fall season as well.
As the church entered the 1990’s the Sunday School was finding the present facilities were difficult to deliver a beneficial program to the children. So with thanks to the foresight of those who built the Christian Education Wing, we began to consider the thought of building a second story onto the roof of the C.E. Wing since it was originally made for this purpose. Throughout 1994 and 1995 the thoughts were put into action and with the help of the congregation we were able to expand the Sunday School by four classrooms and one larger meeting room by the middle of 1998.
As the century changed in 1999, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary with a special service on Oct. 17. The entire year focused on celebrating our relationship with God not only in the past and present but looking also toward the future. With the dawn of a new millennium there will be more opportunities, more challenges and more ways that God will reveal Himself to show us where we should go.
With the year 2000 arriving we became involved in more Outreach Programs and continued to upgrade and take care of this building God has entrusted to us. In 2001 we renovated the now “Old” Sunday School room and brought the minister’s office downstairs so that it would be more readily accessible. This makes it easier for people to meet with our minister and provides a more quiet and private area for discussion.
For Christmas of 2002, the Sunday School used patterns which were part of a manger scene used years ago by Margaret Geissberger’s father of the wise men and Mary and Joseph to construct a manger scene. Using a small stable that was donated by Eileen Sobil, the Sunday School built and painted the manger scene to look like shadows. This was placed outside the church with a couple of 40W bulbs as back lighting. Straw was then placed on the ground for that real stable effect.
They also purchased some PVC piping and constructed a 7-foot star with Christmas lights that was placed on the roof. Not wanting to damage the roof, the stand was made so it would stay without being tied down…or so we thought. The day they were to go Christmas caroling it was quite windy and when everyone arrived in the evening they found the star on the other side of the roof but the lights were still on!!! It was later put back in place and tied down securely.
As Easter of 2003 approached the star was not needed so with the help of Richard Booth and some of the Sunday School members, the star was transformed into a 12 foot cross. It was originally supposed to be 15 feet but it was too tall for the supports. The cross was lit with mini-Christmas lights but again strong winds played havoc with it. By November of that same year, the cross was looking rather rugged. It was tilted backward toward the east and leaning to the south. Originally the plan was for the poles to be used as a star at Christmas and a cross the rest of the year. Since mounting it was a challenge it ended up that in late November 2003 the cross was taken off the stand, extended to its original 15 feet and laid on the roof facing west. Again it was tied down…just incase!
This may be an old building, and although it is truly the people who make a church, we have been given an unique opportunity to have a building where founding people, the pioneers of this church, worshiped over 150 years ago. They have passed through the very doors as we have passed through. It was their hard work, faith and prayers, which started and built this church. It is up to us to take what they have given us, build upon it and let others know of its presence for as time moves on, others will follow in the footsteps we leave today!