“How Firm A Foundation” at St. James, Port Elgin

In Port Elgin, the roots of Presbyterianism lie deeply imbedded. In late April 1854 Rev Alexander Clarke (1794–1874) reported: On Sabbath afternoon was at Jolicure. Monday lectured at the Bay [Baie Verte]. Went on to Gaspereau [Port Elgin]. Appointed a building committee, and let the foundation and frame of the [meeting] house. So began the first Reformed Presbyterian church in Port Elgin.

Rev Alexander Clarke was, by any measure, an extraordinary individual. A native of Ulster, he was appointed in 1827 by the Irish Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church to serve in New Brunswick. The Clarke family arrived in Saint John, Aug 23, 1827 and moved to the Chignecto region the following year.

In the mid-1830s, to supplement his salary, Clarke purchased a farm at East Amherst. This was to become his headquarters for the next four decades. The old homestead is still standing, a silent memorial to Clarke’s dedicated missionary service. Travelling east from Amherst, on Highway 6 it is on the left, just beyond the Tyndale Road.

In addition to the Port Elgin church, Clarke was responsible for building throughout Westmorland and Cumberland counties, some 14 other Reformed Presbyterian or Covenanter churches. External recognition came to him in 1860 with the award of an honorary DD by Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania.

Clarke died on March 15, 1874. His long and distinguished career is well summarized on a weather-stained headstone in the West Amherst cemetery:

He was a powerful preacher,
A successful pastor,
An accomplished scholar,
And a zealous servant of God.
The Righteous Shall Be
In Everlasting Remembrance.

Psalm 112:6

As we look back, an important part of Clarke’s zealous service came in laying a firm foundation for Presbyterianism in Port Elgin.

Forty five years after the establishment of the first Reformed Presbyterian church another foundation stone was to be put in place. A new building, the present St James, was erected in 1898 and dedicated on Jan 15 1899. According to the Presbyterian Witness three services were held to mark the event. In the morning the speaker was Rev David Wright, St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Springhill. His appropriate sermon was on the theme the moral power of the church in human history. The afternoon sermon was delivered by Rev Mr Gardiner of the Baptist Church while Rev. Joseph Howe Brownell, who later was to be minister of St James, preached in the evening. Throughout, a community choir of the best singers from different churches rendered excellent music… The offerings were liberal.

It was inevitable that the St James congregation would become involved in the debate over Church Union in 1925. In that year Methodist, Congregational and a large percentage of Presbyterian churches came together to form the United Church of Canada. Significantly, a majority of the members of the St James congregation voted to remain with the continuing Presbyterian Church. This landmark decision constitutes the third foundation stone of Presbyterianism in Port Elgin.

Noteworthy is the fact that the congregation purposefully looked to the future and embarked on a major refurbishment of St James Church. It was at this time that the beautiful stained glass windows which still adorn the sanctuary were installed. Six windows commemorate the life and contribution of the Anderson, Grant, Horsman, McLeod, Monroe and Oulton families. Another honors Rev. Joseph Howe Brownell (1858–1920). A native of Northport, NS he was minister of St James from 1905 to 1920. The impressive chancel window was donated by Port Elgin industrialist and politician Fred Magee (1875 — 1953), in memory of his parents.

From 1925 until 1939 St James was a single pastoral charge with its own minister and manse. However, by 1937 the impact of the Depression was such that discussions began, which led two years later, to a cooperative arrangement with St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Sackville. In 1967 a new manse was erected in Sackville for the benefit of clergy serving both churches.

As early as 1970, Mrs. Eleanor Goodwin was elected an elder of St James. Dr Charles Scobie has noted that she thus became the first woman in New Brunswick to be ordained to that office. In 1998 Rev. Dale Gray, who was also an elder from 1994 to 1996, was the first member of St James to be ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He is now minister of St Columba and St Matthew’s Presbyterian Church in Saint John, NB. By coincidence, one of his classmates at Presbyterian College, Montreal, Rev. Ruth Houtby made history when she was inducted as the first woman minister of St Andrew’s Sackville and St James Port Elgin on Sept 03 1998.

A centennial is an important milestone for any institution. Poised at the threshold of the twenty first century, St James Presbyterian Church will mark the 100th anniversary of the present building on Sunday, Jan 31, 1999. A special service will be held at 2PM when the guest preacher will be Dr William Klempa, currently Moderator of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church in Canada.

It is impossible to do justice in one column to a story that spans 145 years. Readers wishing more detail are directed to Dr Charles H. H. Scobie’s The Presbyterian Church in Port Elgin, New Brunswick: A Short History. Published to mark the centennial of St James, it provides a comprehensive overview of the events from 1854 to 1999. Important also, is Dr Eldon Hay’s definitive The Chignecto Covenanters. This study describes not only the remarkable career of Dr Alexander Clarke and his associates; it traces the evolution of Presbyterianism in the region. Clarke’s comments in the opening paragraph are quoted from this book. Mrs Jean Baughan was also helpful in providing me with local information.