Old North Church Cemetery Association seeks support to preserve historic site

Old North Church Cemetery Association seeks support to preserve historic site
Old North Church Cemetery Association members Janet Little McLellan, Isabel Thwaites Nelson, and Gwendolyn Conner McKnight (Photo : William Crooks)

By William Crooks

Local Journalism Initiative

Hatley Township’s Old North Church Cemetery, the oldest of the three cemeteries in the area, underwent restoration in 1990. To ensure its ongoing maintenance and to conduct genealogical research of the families interred there, the Old North Church Cemetery Association was established and is now asking the public for financial support.

Founders Terry and Phyllis Emery Skeats played a crucial role in forming the association; both are now deceased. Currently, the association is down to just three members after 33 years. Financial challenges have arisen, with low interest rates over the past decade causing a gradual decline in cash flow, barely covering the cost of mowing the cemetery grounds.

Up until 2013, the association had annual memberships. In light of recent financial strains, members decided at a recent meeting to reach out to descendants and interested individuals to generate support and improve their financial situation.

The association is reintroducing an annual membership and plans to hold yearly meetings, providing members with a copy of the minutes and financial statements. “Please consider helping us care for this precious place,” appealed association members Isabel Thwaites Nelson, Gwendolyn Conner McKnight, and Janet Little McLellan in an open letter to The Record July 8.

For those interested in supporting the Old North Church Cemetery Association, annual membership is $20 until Sept. 1, 2025. Donations over $25 are eligible for an official receipt. Cheques should be made payable to the Church Society, Diocese of Quebec, indicating that it is for the Hatley – North Church Cemetery. Donors are asked to include their email and mailing address.

For more details or to join the association, contact McLellan at: jamclellan490@gmail.com

Old North Church Cemetery

The three members of the association met with The Record July 8 at the cemetery, providing a document that outlines the history of it and the church that used to stand there. It is summarized below:

The region was first settled in the 1790s by pioneers from New England, including Captain Ebenezer Hovey, who became a notable figure in the area. The Old North Church was one of the earliest churches established, with the first burial in the cemetery occurring around the same time.

In 1818, Reverend Charles Stewart, a missionary of the Anglican Church, proposed the construction of a permanent church building. The construction was completed in 1819, largely funded by local residents who contributed both labour and financial support. The building, however, faced challenges due to its location, leading to its abandonment in the late 1820s when a new church, Christ Church, was established in a more suitable location.

The Old North Church building fell into disrepair and was eventually taken down in 1928 and replaced with a commemorative cairn that marks the spot where the church’s front steps once were. In 1992, the cairn was fully restored and continues to serve as a historic landmark.

The cemetery, however, remained in use throughout these years and continues to be an important historical record for the township. The last burial took place in 2018, marking over 200 years of continuous use. The cemetery holds significant historical value, reflecting the early settlement and development of the Hatley region.

More from the association

Nelson, McKnight, and McLellan filled The Record in on more details in a group interview on the scene. The cemetery has a rich history intertwined with the region’s development.

“Settlers began arriving in this area as early as 1790,” a member explained. “They were primarily from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and while some may have been Loyalists, the majority were simply seeking new opportunities in what they believed was part of the United States.”

The church opened its doors on Feb. 21, 1819, and became a central part of the community’s spiritual and social life. The cemetery’s association has been instrumental in maintaining the site. “Our goal is to create interest and improve our cash flow,” said one member. “We barely have enough to cover the mowing each year.”

The association operates on donations, an endowment, and a Guaranteed Investment Certificate (GIC), only using the interest for expenses. However, due to low interest rates over the past decade, their principal has diminished. “We need more funds to repair and straighten the headstones,” a member said.

A notable aspect of the cemetery’s history is its connection to the early Mormon pioneers. “A group of Mormons left from here by wagon train in 1836 and were among the founders of the state of Utah,” said a member. This connection has led to ongoing relationships with descendants in Utah, who have visited and contributed to the cemetery’s upkeep.

The cemetery is still under the ownership of nearby St. James Church, but the association continues to maintain the cemetery grounds, despite the challenges of fundraising and limited resources.

“Our mission is to keep the history of this place alive,” said another member. “If we don’t, it’s lost. Most of us are descendants of the original settlers, and we want to ensure future generations know about their heritage.”

Efforts are being made to digitize records and make the cemetery’s history accessible to the public. Copies of a comprehensive book on the cemetery’s history can be found at the North Hatley Library. The association encourages donations and memberships to support their ongoing preservation work.

“We hope people will see the value in maintaining this special place,” a member said. “It’s a link to our past and a testament to the resilience and spirit of the early settlers.”

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