Paddles on Fortune River

Paddles on Fortune River
Bay Fortune United Church, 1946.

Each Island community, in its own way, can be identified by its churches. These bold edifices were so often the pride of the community, as they were a gathering place for the people of an area to share their joys and sorrows, their highs and lows, with those around them. They offered a rallying cry against the harsh realities of life in rural Canada, and as such the history of our communities, of our areas, are inexorably linked to the histories of our rural churches. Such is true in Bay Fortune as well, where for many years it has been understood that a community is only as strong as the church at the heart of it. This is something that has always resonated with the people of Bay Fortune, and it is something to be proud of, for after over 200 years the presence of a church in the area still brings pride to the people, even to this day.

Constructing the First Church

In the earliest days of Island history, the first churches were small, local affairs, with services often held in people’s homes on a weekly basis, with priests and ministers travelling in from other areas to speak. These early preachers were responsible for areas spanning entire counties, and some of the men who served the Bay Fortune Church had a congregational area from East Point to Covehead. Travel was not easy in those days, and when these ministers weren’t available, local people would offer the service in their stead.

Bay Fortune Church, as it appeared in 1880.

As was the case in Rollo Bay and other surrounding areas, the first Presbyterian Church in Fortune was likely a log church, located “on the hill just before you get to Red House” (1). These buildings were small and humble, and were a reflection of the people they served. But as populations grew, in time it was decided that a larger church needed to be built, and many came together to help contribute toward the success of the project. Among those listed as donors were many familiar names to the area today, including Coffins, McKies, Aitkens, MacKenzies, Dingwells, Burkes, and surprisingly enough, even Edward Abell (1).

The first formal church in the area was constructed somewhere “just prior” to 1815, and we know that it was in place by this year.  It was constructed on the property where the present day Bay Fortune United Church is, on land donated by John McKie (1).

Constructing a church at this time was no easy task, in a world of simple tools, laborious hardships on and off the farm, where one’s foremost obligations were towards farm and family to ensure your own survival. But the fact remained that building a church required an immense effort from the community if it were ever to take shape at all. The entire family was involved in the construction of the church, and this type of community service was an all day affair.

Using an adze to shape timber.

The men of the community would be hard at work, chopping trees and shaping them into lumber using an adze or a hatchet. Clapboards were sawn as well, to cover the outside of the church, and these were cut with an upright saw in a pit. When the lumber was readied it was laid out flat on the ground and assembled in this way, and when the walls were ready they were later raised into place. And, just as in many of the old homes, buildings, and churches in the area, nails were scarce and screws unheard of, and so the clever techniques of dowels and wooden pins were employed to hold the church together. Doing such things effectively took the minds of master craftsmen, but their work, once completed, was certain to stand the test of time (1).

Meanwhile, the girls and women of the group would be hard at work preparing meals to feed the workers. These meals were served on long, impromptu tables of roughly hewn lumber. And while it was undoubtedly hard work, it is certain that there was a sense of fellowship to be found among those who laboured alongside their neighbours for the greater good, and a great sense of pride to be realized in the finished product.

And a proud church it surely was, but it was not immune to the ravages of Nature, and it was the unfortunate fate of this community capstone that it was to burn, years after construction, sometime before 1834. This fire claimed not only the church, but all of the historical records within, and so little remains as to the legacy of this church and its proud people, and sadly it was destroyed in an era long before photography was available.

From the Ashes

Members of the Bay Fortune congregation, 1800s.

But the people of Bay Fortune were not to be deterred, and actions were soon set in motion to rebuild a second church over the ashes of the first. No photos or images of this church are known to exist either, however unlike the first we do have some description of it.

An undated article, which long ago appeared in The Guardian, explained that “this church with a low-pitched roof, was built parallel to the road with the door in the middle of the building protected by a porch. Two rows of pews on each side of a wide central aisle flanked the long communion table. The pulpit, shaped like an hourglass, had a winding stair and a door. As John Astor Aitken’s memoir recalls, the pulpit had a “winding stairs… painted white” (1).  At this time in church history, the old Scottish custom of of standing for prayer, sitting when psalms were sung, and gathering around an actual table for the Lord’ssupper were strictly observed” (1).

Our Present Day Church

By 1875 it was once again deemed that the community was in need of a larger, more suitable church, and so, under the supervision of Billy Dick Dingwell, a third church was built which replaced the second. Mr. Dingwell was well known for his carpentry skills, having at the time built or overseen the construction of many buildings in the area, including the Leard’s Men’s Wear building, the MacLean House Inn, South Lake Christian Church, Souris Presbyterian Church and Souris Methodist Church, among others (3).

William “Billy” Dick Dingwell

Working swiftly and capably, the second church was torn down and the lumber was used to build a barn which later belonged to Frank McClumpha (1). This third and present day church was completed in 1877. Upon its initial completion, the church, like many others at the time, had a steeple which rose high above the area and could be seen for miles. However, not unlike St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Souris, the Bay Fortune steeple was removed in 1961, giving the church the appearance that it is known for today (1).

In 1925, the Presbyterian church became a part of the United Church. Renovations were done, and there was a reopening service held on 2 August 1925. Statistics provided at that time indicated the changes in the church congregation over the years: 90 families in 1861, with no change in 1910 or 1924, however there was an increase of 34 parishioners in that time. In 1925 the yearly givings of a family were $15, which was readily given.

A Sunday Affair

Picnic at the Cape Field. Date Unknown.

From the very outset the Bay Fortune United Church provided a gathering place for the people, both for worship and fellowship, and by 1925 there was an enrollment of 140 students in the Church’s Sunday school (1). Classes were held every Sunday morning. Sunday school was at one time held at the Orange Lodge, but it was later held at the church itself (1).

Other popular activities were the church picnics which took place on the Cape Field, on the peninsula between Rollo Bay and Fortune. Townshend writes that “the members of the congregation would pack a picnic lunch. Homemade ice cream was always served. Charlie and Emma Dingwell made the ice cream for many years for the picnics held at the Cape Field. A candy scramble, games, races such as potato sack, three legged, and running were part of the afternoon fun. Prizes were chocolate bars and gum (1).

John Astor Aitken recalls a memory of the Cape Field church picnics, however it is something of a sombre recollection. “I remember when Mother was preparing for the Church’s tea party to be held at Abell’s Cape, there were two or three other women with her peeling apples. They would peel the apples all in one piece, throw the peeling over their heads, and look to see what letter it formed [this was done at the time as a superstitious game, purportedly to tell the future]. I remember being at the tea party. Long tables were placed under tents and set with all kinds of good food. There was a ferris wheel and a tent with a counter where drinks were sold. Two tall posts supported a long timber to which several swings were attached. I was standing nearby watching the swingers when the timber fell from the top of one of the posts and killed a man standing near the post (1).


The Church Today

The church as it appears today

Like most churches in the area, the Bay Fortune United Church has seen a reduction in parishioners in recent years. Families have grown smaller, and weekly attendance is not prioritized in the way that it once was. As a response to this, in 2005 the Kings United Pastoral Charge was formed, “and worships as one congregation alternating services and activities between Dundas United and Bay Fortune United” (2). Just as in days past, the church is still a proud pillar of the community, and is ever-ready to adapt to the changing needs of those which is serves.



A special Thank-You once more to Bonnie Townshend and her fabulous book, “The Road to Fortune”, which again served as an invaluable resource for this project.

  1. Townshend, Bonnie. “The Road to Fortune”. 2012. Print
  2. Kings United Pastoral Charge. “About Us”. Web. 12 January 2019.
  3. MacAulay, Charlotte. “Structures and stories stand three generations later”. The Eastern Graphic. 5 August 2015. Web. 12 January 2019.