Diocesan Archives

St. Leonard, Rockingham — Deanery of the Northwest

Wooden church in the forest
By on April 22, 2024

Romantic Rockingham

In the late 1850s, Canada West (now Ontario) decided to push a series of colonization roads through the southern portion of the Canadian Shield to encourage settlement. It was a terrible idea. Anyone already living in Ontario knew how bad the land was, so the government had to advertise for settlers in Britain and Europe. It is for this reason that numerous German and Polish refugees were drawn into this impossible landscape.

Among those drawn to the Opeongo Colonization Road in Renfrew County was John S.J. Watson in 1859. He was a remittance man, banished from his home at Rockingham Castle near Corby in Northamptonshire, England by his aristocratic father for marrying a scullery maid named Mary Martin. The castle was an old royal residence fallen to ruin, acquired from the Crown by Edward Watson in 1544 and kept in the family ever since. John Watson was given $10,000 ($250,000 in 2024 dollars) and came to Canada with a group of settlers including tradesmen. They established Rockingham in Brudenell Township, with a store, mills, a post office, setting up various trades, and building Saint Leonard’s Church before the money ran out.

Here we see Saint Leonard’s Church, Rockingham, as photographed on October 8th 2004, 140 years after it was built by John Trant. The congregation began meeting around 1864, and this house of worship likely was constructed at that time for use as an Anglican church, primarily with funds supplied by John Watson. It may possibly have been used as a Union Church in the early years. As late as the mid-1870s, it first appears in the Synod Journal of the Diocese of Ontario when the Rev. Montague Gower Poole of Eganville took services in Rockingham several times a year, leaving the coast clear for clergy of other denominations to visit.

Another document tells us that a church was in the course of being built here by the Rev. Mackay in 1883, but that building seems to have been put up elsewhere in the mission. Whether built in the 1860s or 1880s, this board-and-batten church with pointed windows epitomizes the romantic legend of the settlement. In what sense was Rockingham romantic?  Simply, it may be answered, in that the entire notion of attempting to build an agricultural settlement here was an “extravagant fiction, invention or story, a wild or wanton exaggeration, a picturesque falsehood.”

Not until 1883 was the Mission of Brudenell created, with churches at Combermere and Rockingham. It was renamed Combermere in 1884. In 1904, this mission consisted of Bangor, Bell’s Rapids, Combermere, Craig Mount and Rockingham. The following year Rockingham is listed in the Synod Journal as including an outstation at Jessup’s.

In 1922, the Mission of Combermere listed stations at Bark Lake, Barry’s Bay, Centreview, Combermere and Purdy, but not, tellingly, at Rockingham. Rockingham reappeared briefly in the Synod Journal of 1945, only to disappear from its pages thereafter. Tradition indicates that the last regular service held at Saint Leonard’s was in the summer of 1941.

On 14 May 1967, Bishop Ernest S. Reed of Ottawa performed the Act of secularization of Saint Leonard’s Church, Rockingham. A stay of demolition was made on this building until 30 April 1996, and an agreement was made to sever the property from the cemetery. Title to the property was transferred to the Friends of the Rockingham Church 30 years later.

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