A Little History of the Rockingham Church

The Rockingham Church, formerly called St. Leonard’s Anglican Church, was built about 1875, when the hamlet of Rockingham was a thriving community. Largely abandoned by the 1940s, the building had deteriorated significantly by the mid-‘90s despite various earlier repair efforts. In 1995, the Friends of the Rockingham Church formed to save the building from destruction. Major repairs were carried out in 1999 and 2000. In 1999, the Townships of Brudenell, Lyndoch & Raglan designated the church a heritage site under the Ontario Heritage Act.


Portrait of Rev. John. S. J. Watson, taken in Carlisle in the first half of the 1850s while curate at Stanwix Parish, Carlisle, England

The village of Rockingham was founded by John S.J. Watson (click here to read more about John S.J. Watson), who in 1858 immigrated to Canada from the British Midlands along with a group of skilled settlers. In the 1850s, construction of the Opeongo and Peterson Colonization Roads was opening up the “Ottawa country.” On a land grant on the Peterson Road in Brudenell Township, six miles south of the Opeongo, Watson and his group built a grist mill and a sawmill (the town was first called Watson’s Mills) as well as a general store, post office, blacksmith’s shop, hotel, tannery, school and finally the church. By 1888, the population of Rockingham was about 60; it swelled to 110 by 1899, then began to dwindle as the once abundant white and red pine were logged off and farmers moved on to more arable land.

Evidence for the date of construction of the Rockingham Church is conflicting, but The Renfrew Mercury, May 28, 1875, reported:

New Church at Rockingham

The Protestant settlers at Rockingham have, with the assistance of a few kind friends, lately erected a commodious place of worship for the settlement, the site having been given by J.S.J. Watson, Esq. The local subscriptions amount to $330, and from non-local subscriptions a further sum of $130 has been raised; but as this is insufficient to complete and fit up the church, the Building Committee are appealing to the liberality of other friends to give them a helping hand. The Building Committee are Messrs. J.S.J. Watson, R. Acton, and John Bond.

In 1882, the Anglican Mission Board granted $400 to the Bishop of Ontario toward the support of a missionary to be stationed at Rockingham. The Rev. A.W. MacKay arrived in early 1882 to take up the position. The Church Warden’s Accounts for the same year record expenses of $391.14 to improve the church with the addition of a porch, communion rail, and organ, most likely to complete it for use as an Anglican mission; at that time it was named St. Leonard’s Church. A stove was added in 1885, and a belfry and bell in 1891.

In 1912, a year before his death, John Watson deeded St. Leonard’s to the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. The last regular service was held in 1924, and the church had no minister from then until 1944. A Rev. Leon B.G. Adams was minister from 1944-47, but the church was apparently closed in 1941. The pews, font and bell were removed in 1945-46, to churches in Quadeville, Barry’s Bay and Killaloe respectively. On May 14, 1967, Bishop Ernest Reed of Ottawa performed the Act of Secularization on the church.

In the 1970s, volunteers with the Madawaska Association for Developmental Ecology (M.A.D.E.), followed by a crew funded with a Canada Works grant, repaired the back wall, reshingled the roof and arranged for the return of the pews. But apart from the visits of tourists, history buffs and artists, the church again stood empty and decaying until 1995, when the Friends of the Rockingham Church formed to prevent its demolition and undertake its repair. Indian Creek Timber Structures, Inc. was engaged to carry out the extensive rehabilitation in 1999 and 2000.

Architecture of the Rockingham Church

The church construction is post and beam, with board and batten siding of local pine — likely from Watson’s mill. The old shingles replaced in the 1970s were of cedar. No surviving record in the Church Warden’s accounts shows earlier repairs or replacement, but after 100 years one can hardly believe they were original.

Notable features of the 26’ x 36’ structure are the elegant round-headed windows, the old wood-panelled walls and ceiling, and the simple steeple, originally clad with steel shingles. The bell, made by H. Shane & Co., Renfrew, was removed to the Anglican Church in Killaloe in 1945 or ’46, and remains there. A replacement bell was donated at the time of the repairs.

The porch entryway was added on the west side of the building in 1882. Repairs to the building confirmed there was a door frame in the east end wall (behind the pulpit) but it is not known if this was ever used for a door. A masonry chimney was also installed at the east end. Framing between the ceiling and the roof and a hole in the roof at the west end suggest the intention at some early time to locate a chimney there, but this was never done. Samuel Acton was responsible for building the steeple at this end in 1891.

The curved pews were original to the Rockingham Church. They were removed to the Quadeville Pentecostal Church in the 1940s and returned in the mid-1970s. The original altar rail and pulpit remain, and the original pump organ was returned by donation in June 2000.

The repairs undertaken in 1999-2000 uncovered extensive rot to the post-and-beam structure within the walls and at the ground, which had caused the increasing sag in the walls and roof. Siding boards were removed to allow repair or replacement of the 8” x 8” beams without disturbing the interior panelling. Sill plates and floor joists were also repaired or replaced. Rafter ends, rotting where they sat on the wall top plates, were reinforced with new lumber, unsound roof decking was replaced, and the roof was reshingled in new cedar. The steeple’s old steel shingles were replaced with copper. Repairs were completed in July 2000, in time for a public celebration in August.

The Friends of the Rockingham Church, Inc.

The Friends of the Rockingham Church formed in 1995, in response to the imminent threat of the demolition of the church. The Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, then the owner, was concerned about the building’s deteriorating condition and had applied to the municipality for a demolition permit. Concerned local citizens took action and prevailed upon the Diocese to delay and eventually waive the application. In 1997, a committee made up of Peggy Bridgland, Gwynne Foster, David Trafford, Rob Van Vliet and Johannes Vrakking applied for and received status as a corporation and a designated charitable organization. The Friends received title to the building in 1998, and increased their efforts to raise the funds needed to repair and preserve the building as a heritage site.


This preservation project was funded by grants from the Canada Millennium Partnership Program, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Haley Foundation of New Hope, Pennsylvania, the Townships of Brudenell, Lyndoch & Raglan (through the Ontario Lottery Corporation), and by generous donations of money, materials and services from many individuals and businesses. The Friends publicly acknowledge and thank all of these people and organizations for their support. We especially thank those individuals who supported the project in its early stages and encouraged us to continue when at times it seemed hopeless.

Click here to read more about John S. J. Watson.

The Rockingham Church is part of the Renfrew County Museums Network.

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