Our History

History of Lake Joseph Community Church


In celebration of the church’s 120th Anniversary in 2023, the Board of Directors thought it would be appropriate to provide highlights each Sunday of our beloved Church’s history.

After the arrival of the railroad to Gravenhurst in 1875, settlers poured into the area and development was rapid.  Cottagers built their homes and held church services in them whenever a minister was available.  Towns sprang up with churches such as Knox Presbyterian in Port Carling opening in 1878.  But, as travel on the lakes was mainly by rowboat and canoe, those residing on Lake Joseph would find the trip to Port Carling to attend church too difficult. 

In 1891, the Presbyterian Church sent the Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr to Lake Joseph as a missionary.  He boarded with a family in Glen Orchard.  In 1901 and 1902, students studying for the ministry were sent for the summer and their task was to assist any Minister holding a service, but basically to visit all the prospective church supporters in the area.  These forerunners did their work well for in 1902, the cottagers and permanent residents got together and decided to build a Presbyterian church.  The lot, which The Lake Joseph Community Church still occupies, was purchased from Mr. L. K. Martin of Toronto for $150 and the deed was executed on Sept. 27th, 1902.

Three Trustees; Thomas Henry, A.W. Alexander and Thomas Still were elected.  They turned out to clear the property and Mr. Henry, as the eldest, felled the first tree!  The contract for the construction of the building was given to the Mackenzie brothers of Bonnie Brae, near Foote’s Bay, from where they paddled to and from the job site.  They executed the much-appreciated unique design in the basswood paneling of the interior.  The construction was finished in August 1903.

The opening of the Church on August 9, 1903, was a gala affair.  The issue of The Presbyterian (which was the publication of The Presbyterian Church at the time) of August 12th describes the opening day as follows:  The new Lake Joseph Presbyterian Church was opened last Sabbath, August 9th.  Muskoka was at it’s best.  The weather was all that could be desired.  By 10:30 A.M.; rowboats, canoes, and launches began to assemble.  At 10:45, the steamer Islander, the most popular boat on the lakes, appeared with decks crowded.  Soon the wharf and hillside became thronged and by 11:00 AM the church was crowded to the doors.  The service was conducted by the Rev. Dr. Carlyle of Pittsburgh and the Rev. Donald Mackay of Bala, a recent Knox graduate.

In the evening, a still larger number assembled, the Islander being taxed to it’s utmost.  One hundred failed to find entrance to the church.  The Rev. Dr. Grant of Orillia officiated.  Miss Pearl Davis, a soprano soloist, and Miss Clara Clarke of Central Presbyterian Church, both of Toronto and Miss Turnbull of Hamilton, ably assisted in the service of praise.  Miss Davis sang the beautiful sacred solo “Face to Face” with much vigor and expression and her earnest and sympathetic manner won for her the affection of all who heard her.

After the evening service, as the boat was leaving in the perfect moonlight, it’s 250 passengers united in singing “Jesus Saviour Pilot Me” and while homeward bound, the singing of “Abide With Me” and “God Be With You Until We Meet Again” re-echoed from the mainland and islands.  This was the forerunner of today’s hymn singing prior to the Sunday service!

Following this first service, a gift of a bell had been made as a thank offering by an attendee for the recovery of an illness, but it had not arrived in time for August 9th but was duly installed in the tower on the next Thursday.

A young English lady named Miss Mabel Taylor had come to the area to teach school.  In 1911, she married Mr. Morton Henry and in 1918 she became the “temporary” organist and continued in that capacity until 1962!

From a letter received several years ago, it was written by the author who was 91 years of age at the time of writing the letter: “In 1913, we stayed at Nephwin-Gregory and walked thro’ the woods to the church.  It was young Knox College students who supplied the pulpit for some years.  Mrs. Mort Henry played the organ for many years.  Many families came in their chauffeured Ditchburn launches.  Dress was anything but informal, ladies in pretty summer dresses with hats and some with gloves!  Men in well tailored summer suits.”

In the 1930’s, Dr. Thomas Winslow, a member of the family that had been so supportive of the church thirty-five years previously, had inherited the job of running the church.  There were too many problems, it was ruining his vacations and he wanted to be relieved of it.  The Rev. John McNeil, who had previously arranged for the preachers was ill and could no longer help.  The only people that came to the services were friends that Dr. Winslow had invited personally and in bad weather sometimes no one came.  The roof leaked, the windowsills were rotten, and the dock had been damaged so badly that boats moored to it were often damaged too.  He had difficulty getting ministers.  There was only $92.43 in the bank account, insufficient to make the repairs.  He held no services in 1933 and 1934 and he wanted to close the church and sell the property.

Fortunately, the sale of the church did not occur because a group of interested people came together and planned for services again in 1935.  Eight services were held in 1935, the collection ran $17 to $20 per Sunday, and the ministers were paid $15.

The formation of the United Church by the union of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational Churches in 1925 had little effect on the Lake Joseph Presbyterian Church.  However, after the Church was reopened in 1935, the United Church supplied the student ministers.

One student, Mr. William Fennel, was sent up to serve the Church in 1938.  He was overjoyed for he had expected to perhaps be sent to a western town and instead found himself in beautiful Muskoka, riding to his calls in a “Put-Put” loaned to him by one of the cottagers who attended the church.  His duties were primarily to visit the member families hoping to engender a feeling of belonging.  He preached the opening Sunday in 1938 and assisted the preachers on the other Sundays.  It was also his duty to post notices of the services and preachers in the nearby hotels and stores.  There were few children attending and no Sunday School.

Through 1939 to 1941, Mr. Donald Craig Kerr, who was also a student studying for the ministry, came as the summer assistant.  He stayed with his family at Elgin House.  His duties were the same as his predecessors, but in addition he rounded up all the available young people for a picnic on Townsend Island.  His salary was $10.50 a week.  He and his friend Mis Nora Lloyd swept and dusted the church each Saturday and enjoyed each other’s company as they cut a path from the Peninsula Road into the building.  A more permanent fringe benefit was that they were married in 1942!

Dr. Kerr kept notes during his student days and from these, we are able to know that at the service held on Sunday July 2, 1939, there were 17 people in attendance and the offering was $7.00.  At the service held on Sunday August 28, 1940, there were 167 people in attendance and the offerings for the year almost doubled from the year before. 

It is interesting to note that if the offerings were not sufficient to pay the expenses, the board members made up the shortage.  All the repair work was done gratis by the men of the congregation.

Although Dr. Kerr spent his professional life serving the Presbyterian Church in the United States, he built a cottage in 1947 near Port Sandfield and preached the opening and closing services at Lake Joe Church for many years.  He completed fifty years of much appreciated service in 1989 and retired to Florida. 

A Mr. George Santayana and his wife Norma built a cottage on Little Lake Joe in 1950 and first attended the church in that year.  There was a great deal of difference between the services as reported in 1913 and in 1950.  Students no longer supplied the pulpit but were replaced by ordained men who were vacationing nearby.  Two of these gentlemen were Drs. Don Kerr and William Fennell, (who we heard about last week), and they were the last two students sent to this charge.  

There were two different hymn books used in the church.  On the first visit of a new minister there was often great confusion when he announced the hymn.  He would announce its number in the pulpit hymn book, but would neglect to give the number in the other hymn book.  The result was that one half the congregation sang the announced hymn to its proper music while the other half were trying to sing a different hymn.  Confusion reigned!  The problem was explained to the minister, corrected, and a fresh start was made each and every time!

The congregation in 1950 numbered about 50.  There was no Sunday School and no children’s story.  Few children were brought to church until the children’s story was introduced some twenty-two years later.  

It was difficult for people to meet with the other worshippers, for at the end of the service there was no place to gather, so those returning to their boats left by the lakeside entrance, while others left by the rear door for their automobiles.

In the 1950’s, the Income Tax had come in and chauffeured boats had gone out.  Styles were more moderate.  The ladies no longer were required to wear hat; skirts were shorter; and ladies slacks were coming in.  Some gentlemen still wore suits but many wore slacks with a jacket or blazer.  A few rebels did not even wear a necktie!

1962 brought many changes for our church.  Mrs. Mabel Henry (who you may remember from a few weeks ago had come to the area to teach school and married Mr. Morton Henry in 1911), retired after being the “temporary” organist for 45 years!  Mr. G. R. Avery donated the stone steps at the entrance to the church.

In 1967, a road was built into the church over the municipal road allowance between the Church’s and the Smythe’s properties and a parking lot was cleared at a cost of $2,428.25 of which $1000 was paid that year.  A bank loan for $1500.00 was taken out the next year to pay off the balance.  Mr. Stafford Smythe generously donated the arch at the entrance and paid for repairing the docks in 1970. 

From the beginning, the affairs of the congregation had been managed by the Trustees; but in August 1967, a new structure was introduced where a Board of Directors was elected to take over the work.

By 1968 the number of services was increased to 10 and the year’s collection totaled $864.67.  The average attendance was 63.  Receipts for giving’s to be used for income tax deductions were first issued and in 1969 envelopes in which one’s collection could be placed were put into the pews.  This would facilitate record keeping for the Treasurer.

The Rev. Hugh Thomson Kerr, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., had preached frequently at the services in the Elgin House Chapel.  When the Love family sold the resort, it was thought that the new owner might not use the chapel, so Mr. Victor Love gave the pulpit to the Kerr family in appreciation of their years of service.  It was installed in The Lake Joseph Community Church and dedicated in memory of Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr in 1969.

The Lake Joseph Yacht Club requested permission, which was granted, to construct a ramp on the shore next to our docks on which their sailboats could be pulled up.  This was to be used by a group of juniors taking sailing lessons.

Iron tie-rods were installed in 1971 to connect the walls of the building to keep them from spreading from the weight of the snow on the roof in the winter.

After a children’s story was introduced in the early part of the service in 1972, more children were brought with their families.  The Rev. Mr. John Hunter always tried to have an interesting beginning to his children’s story.  On one occasion, a young granddaughter was visiting a family and was brought to church.  The minister invited the children to come to the front, but the granddaughter was shy and would not go.  When the children settled down, Rev. Hunter brought a hand full of lollypops out from behind his back and began distributing them to the children.  The young, shy granddaughter jumped up and rushed up for her share, amid peals of laughter from the congregation!

In the mid-1970’s, advertising in the Muskoka Sun was begun and the congregation attendance which had averaged between 65-75 rose to the high 90’s.

Mr. J. W. Alexander, who had been a staunch supporter of the church for 37 years, was killed by a passing motorcycle as he helped guests into their automobile.  He had served as a board member, chairman, and was one of three Trustees elected in 1935 and he had loaned his “Put-Put” to the students to facilitate their missionary work.  There was an immediate demand for a memorial, and unsolicited donations were received.  As a memorial, the beautiful Antipendia on the altar and the Bookmark used in the bible were purchased.

There was insufficient dock space for boat parking, so an arrangement was made in 1973 with the Yacht Club, to move their platform out to deeper water so that boats could moor to it.

In 1973, the seventieth anniversary service, conducted by Dr. Donal Kerr, had an attendance of 155, the largest congregation since the opening day in 1903.

In 1974, Mr. W. W. Smallman joined the Board of Directors of the Church.

A power line was brought in in 1975 to provide light to the pulpit and outlets for power equipment.

The chronic dock problems continued so a used Bubbler was installed in 1976 to protect one dock.  A floating dock was purchased in 1977 to increase the mooring space.

In 1976, Mr. Howard Fairclough brought a used pump organ up from Hamilton.  A vacuum cleaner motor was attached to provide the air pressure required which eliminated the necessity of the organist pumping the foot pedals.

In 1981, Dr. Kerr attempted to start a Sunday School, but the Congregation was not yet ready for it.  The time of the service, which had moved from 2 PM to 11 AM to 10 AM, was moved to 10:30 AM where it remains today.

In 1984, Dr. Don Kerr, with the assistance of Jean McCrea successfully started the Sunday School. 

Also in 1984, Mr. Kenneth Liphardt donated the fine hand crafted alter rail in memory of his late wife.  Mr. Liphardt, Dr. John Kaye, and Howard Fairclough were providing the music for the service on the piano.

Mr. Bill Smallman who joined the Board of Directors in 1974 became Chairman of the Board in 1984.  The 81-year-old building was showing its age and repairs were badly needed.  The docks, which were the point of access for many worshippers, had been so badly damaged by the ice that only parts were usable.  Boats had to raft side by side, tied to each other, to accommodate all the boats that came.  Damage to the boats occurred and the passengers in the outer boats had to clamber over the inner ones, both inconvenient and dangerous.  Some who came by boat ceased to do so.  There was no money for repairs.

Mr. Smallman’s priority was to raise the money to make these repairs and to implement a program of improvements.  In 1984, the only canvas in the history of the church was undertaken.  A mailing of 250 letters was sent out and the result was astonishing, a return of $42,222.17 came in!  The docks were repaired at a cost of $20,380.17 and an ice control system to protect them from further damage was installed.

Many of the Organists who came didn’t wish to play the reed/pump organ and so usually opted to play the piano.  Organ music is expected in most church services.  In 1986, Mrs. Jo Bowen Nobbe, donated a fine electronic organ as a memorial for her late husband Alan Wirtz Nobbe.  This greatly enhanced the quality of music and made it possible to attract additional talented organists.

People tried to gather to visit after the services, but there was little level ground on which to stand, so obviously a surfaced patio would be desirable.  Mr. H. F. Devens made a substantial donation towards the cost and a gift from the Conn Smythe Foundation made up the balance.  It was beautifully constructed in 1987 and the serving of refreshments on the patio began.  It created a well attended get-together and contributed greatly to making church attendance a more friendly experience. 

These improvements were quickly reflected in the increasing size of the congregation and with inevitable growing pains.  In 1987, the parking lot had to be increased and was expanded to accommodate parking for 60 cars.  In 1988, Mrs. Lois Young donated the 2-oak flower stands and also a set of new brass offering plates.  Her husband Bill Young donated the cost of piping a water supply to the patio to facilitate the serving of refreshments.  Austin Electric and Morrow Electric very kindly installed, without charge, a new buried incoming power line which delivered more power and donated the new breaker boxes with increased capacity.  The bell tower belfry was also repaired in 1988.

During the late 1980’s the importance of singing old and familiar hymns as a part of worship was made clear.  Our congregation is composed of many different protestant denominations each of which has its own hymnary and the hymns in each vary greatly.  Many that are great favourites of some denominations were not included in our 1930 United Church hymnary.  These hymnaries are frequently revised and often old favourites are eliminated.  For example, many people were upset when the new United Church Hymnary was issued replacing the 1930 version, and that it didn’t include the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”.  Many people complained that they missed the old hymns that they had sung in Sunday school.  To oblige, a small book containing 20 of these requests, with their music, was printed in 1991.  It was an immediate success, and many were taken home leaving the pews short.  Another printing was required but as additional requests had been received, the 1993 edition contained 60 hymns.  The Red “Favourite Hold Hymns Book” was reprinted again in 1996 and was enlarged to 107 hymns and 11 children’s hymns.  Included was the favourite “Onward Christian Soldiers” that was often requested since it had been omitted from the reprint of the 1930 United Church Hymnary!

In the early 1990’s, the Sunday School was growing.  After the Children’s Story, the children and their teachers left the service and gathered in small groups down by lake, but in inclement weather there was no sheltered place for them to go.  In 1992, an addition was built to house them on the rear of church which was named The William Smallman Room.  However, an increasing congregation soon took over the Smallman Room as well.

In July of 1991, the arch that had marked the footpath into the church from Peninsula Road was refurbished, moved, and erected over the path leading up from the lake.  It was mounted on concrete footings with steel saddles as the old legs had rotted away from years of being in the ground.

In 1993, a sound system was very generously donated which not only improved the acoustics in the Sanctuary and the Smallman Room but made it possible to set up chairs outside on the patio so those seated there could hear the service.  

The building was re-roofed in 1993 and as the church was being used more frequently for weddings, often in the spring and fall when the weather is cool, electric heaters were installed to make the building more comfortable.

Again, growth made more parking space necessary.  The lot had been expanded in 1987 to allow for an additional 60 cars.  In 1992, the parking lot was extended when the neighbours to the east agreed to let the church use their property for parking and now, we could accommodate 120 cars.

As the Smallman Room, which had originally been built to accommodate the increasing Sunday School had been taken over by those attending the service, in 1994, the late Mr. Norman A. Taylor generously donated a Gazebo to be built down by the water for the junior Sunday School in loving memory of his late wife Betty Taylor.  Its structure was designed gratuitously by Mrs. Beverly Torrian, with the engineering calculations done by her husband Thomas.

In 1994, new comfort stations were built in their present location.

On dark days, it was difficult to read in the Church.  The installation of lights had been considered many times but had always been turned down because it was feared that they would spoil the appearance.  However, in 1994 it was noticed that there was a circular disk cut out of the ceiling for ventilation and the disk was suspended below it.  It was suggested that the lights be placed on top of this and the be focused to light the interior.  This was done, the lighting is effective, but it’s source cannot be readily seen from below.

In 1995, the exterior of the building required restoration.  It was decided to resurface with vinyl siding which neither deteriorates nor requires painting in the future.

In the early 1990’s, the organ was badly damaged during an electrical storm.  Frequent repairs kept it in operation, but in 1995 it was advised that repairs would not keep it operating.  Mr. H. Stanley Hunnisett and family donated an Allen Church Organ in memory of Mr. Hunnisett’s late wife and their deceased son.  The new organ was dedicated on July 7, 1996.

Also in 1996, the Rebhun family donated the funds to build the second Gazebo for the senior Sunday School as a memorial to their parents.  Again, the Torrians who had designed the first Gazebo, drew up the plans and the building was finished in late September of 1996.

In 2003, the church celebrated it’s 100th anniversary with a special anniversary service on August 10th with over 500 people in attendance.  Lieutenant-Governor James Bartleman was in attendance and dedicate a permanent Memorial Plaque which is attached to a large granite stone on the east side of the Patio.  Township of Muskoka Lakes Mayor Susan Pryke presented an official Heritage Plaque designating the church as an Historical Site.  Also, in 2003, the church was legally incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation. 

In 2006, a large fan was installed in the attic of the church to help cool the inside of the church in hot weather.  Also, a Church Directory of those who attended the Church was compiled.

In 2007, a new path, steps, and patio were built leading from the parking lot to the door into the Smallman Room.

In 2012 the women’s comfort station was given a very impressive face lift and this was followed in 2013 with a remodel of the men’s facility. 

In 2014, the Entwistle family generously donated a granite bench that was installed by the docks in loving memory of Mr. Norman B. Entwistle.

In 2016, with thanks to two anonymous donors, the aging crib docks were replaced with new steel ones which have the capacity to dock the Segwun or the Wenonah at if required as sometimes requested for weddings.  Also in 2016, the church acquired the property behind the church property going back to Peninsula Road so that the Church now owns the property that the parking lot and the Comfort Stations are situated on.

In 2017, a new roof was put on the church which included a metal cap on the church’s bell tower.  When a cottage fire occurred on a neighbouring Peninsula Road property caused by a lightning strike, it was decided that the metal cap should be replaced by shingles which was done.  Further in 2017, a new Yamaha piano was acquired after many years of use from the previous one.  Also, related to our music ministry, the contributions of Doris Walker and Bill Smallman in the creation of the red “Old Favourites” Hymn Book was recognized by placing a book plate in each book.

2020 and 2021 were abnormal summers as the church was closed due to the COVID19 global pandemic.  The church cautiously reopened for the 2022 season with a new soundboard and speaker system installed.

On Sunday August 6th, 2023, we celebrated the church’s 120th anniversary with a special reception attended by over 140 people.  We look forward to what God has planned for our beloved Lake Joe Church in the future!