Sunday, September 6, 2020
St. Raphael’s Catholic church was built in 1821 and is located just a few kilometres in Ontario near the border with Quebec, about 20 kilometres north-east of Cornwall. It was built by Alexander Macdonell who was to become the Vicar General for the Roman Catholic Church in Upper Canada. The church served a congregation of Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlanders who had emigrated to Canada in 1786 and settled in the eastern townships of what would become Ontario. The church was originally under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Quebec but this only lasted until 1826. St. Raphael’s is recognized as the founding church for all the English congregations of Catholics in the province. The sketch below shows what the church looked like in the early days of the 20th century.
St. Raphael’s remained the largest parish of Roman Catholics in Upper Canada during the 19th century. Plans for the church were drawn up in 1815 with the first load of stone being paid for in 1816. It took only five years to pay off any construction costs because the building was consecrated in 1821. Consecration services are not allowed to be held on buildings that have any outstanding debt on them.
The front of the church featured a three bay composition framed by giant pilasters on each corner. The masonry was expertly crafted and withstood the fire that destroyed the rest of the building.
The church was laid out in a cruciform shape as was common with Catholic churches that were being built in Quebec around the same time. There is a semi-circular apse at the rear of the church and all the widows throughout were round-headed and originally supported stained glass artwork.
The church building still dominates the countryside because of its grand scale. The roof rested directly on the walls with no support pillars needed. This meant that there was an unobstructed view for the full 1000 people that it seated.
The picture below shows the view from where the priest stood looking out over the congregation.
In 1970 when the church was just shy of its 150th anniversary a fire broke out and destroyed the roof, the bell tower and gutted everything inside. The walls were all that remained when the mess was cleaned up. The congregation decided to keep the historic building as it was rather than demolish it or try to rebuild. In 1974 the first phase of stabilizing the structure was undertaken with the tops of the walls being sealed. over the years there has been work done on it three times and even so it was recently closed to the public for a safety inspection after a stone fell out of one of the walls.
The fire destroyed the bell tower and sent the bell crashing to the floor of the church. The heat melted one side of the bell and left a large lump of slag where the knocker used to be.
The walls are over a meter thick with a layer of cut stone on each side and then filled with rubble in the middle.
There is a large graveyard at St. Raphael’s that wraps around two sides of the church and contains the remains of many of the local pioneers. The church ruins have been designated as a national historic monument which recognizes that the church has played a significant role in Canadian history.
St. Raphael’s was a beautiful church inside as the archive photo below shows. The wood work on the beams was carved with intricate details and the inside walls were lined with plaster.
St. Raphael’s may be too far away from the GTA to make it a practical day trip but if you happen to be headed to Montreal it is well worth the time to make the short detour.
Google Maps Link: St. Raphael’s
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I have a personal connection with this church. My grandparents were married in this church on July 19, 1915. I also have several relatives who are still members of this parish and attend mass here. I did in my youth occasionally attend mass … I was an altar boy and belonged to a neighboring parish. Several relatives are buried in this cemetery. I remember the night of the fire. I witnessed my father getting a phone call that evening and jumping in the car to rush over to St. Raphael’s church. The fire lit up the sky and could see the church burning from my parents’ bedroom. It was such a heavy loss for everyone in the area, for it was a landmark to all. I have on occasion, played tour guide for friends from Toronto and friends from overseas and all have left in amazement.
My Great-grandfather, John Mc/MacDonald and Great-grandmother, Harriet Mc/MacDonald where married at this church, St. Raphael’s Parish November 24, 1848.
They lived in Lot 8 in the 3rd Concession, Kenyon Twp., Glengarry Cty., Ontario, Canada.
St. Raphael’s Parish, Charlottenburgh Twp., Glengarry Cty., Ontario, Canada
Have visited many times and always leave with a feeling of peace. Glad they did not tear it down. I believe they hold many events for the surrounding community and that is a great idea.