The Church at St. Joachim
by Father Joseph Emery, 1943
Prior to 1867, the chapel at Belle River served all the territory which today constitutes the parishes of Stoney Point, Staples and Woodslee, as well as Belle River and part of Tecumseh.
In 1867, churches were built in Woodslee and Stoney Point. Because roads were far from being passable, it was very difficult for many people to get to either of these places. For the sick and crippled it was impractical. In 1868 they built the church in Belle River, but it could never hold the people who came there in spite of the bad roads. The second mass on Sunday was then unknown.
Without a doubt no one understood the need for a closer parish more than Fr. Girard of Belle River. He had been writing of this need to Msgr. Walsh, then Bishop of London. During the winter of 1879 and 1880 the Bishop came to Belle River and the two delegations went to meet him. A little group led by Desire Dupres wanted a church at Deerbrook on the Tecumseh Road, on the way to Stoney Point.
On June 3, 1880, the corporate body of the diocese bought 3 and a half acres from Alex Cameron for $75.00. The contract was registered at Sandwich, June 5, 1880. Without a doubt the Bishop told the people “Build a church and you will have a priest”. Mgsr. Walsh did not have another French priest free to be placed at River Ruscom. It would be necessary for him to get one from the Province of Quebec. They did not hesitate in these times to obtain priests of French origin, training and culture from Lower Canada. All the French parishes of Kent and Essex, 2 counties where the Catholic church was flourishing, and was the most deeply rooted in the London Diocese, were founded and furnished with priests for many years after the founding of Quebec. The list would be very long to compile and arrange as well as being very interesting.
The movement was well organized on the part of the local Catholics, and they built a large enough church, very solid and well proportioned. And that, despite misunderstanding, meanness, wrangling and irreparable lies that arose in the process. “Ce qui arrive a peu pres mulle part survint a St. Joachim.” (that which rarely occurs, took place at St. Joachim)
The sum of $700 or $800 was collected in the autumn of 1880. Norbert Sylvestre was chosen treasurer. They began in the inter of 1880 and 1881. They had the wisdom to assure themselves the services of Elzear Jacques of Tecumseh, a first class workman. They bought the timber from Norbert Sylvestre, who had enough white oak on his land, across from the rectory of today. The trees were felled and squared, his son Stephen carted all necessary wood for the carpentry of the church for $200. After having felled and rooted up several trees which existed right where they wished to build the church and after having cut and mortised the wood, they organized in the spring of 1881 to raise the frame the same way they raised the barns of the farmers. The style of construction was the same. The building was 50 feet by 80 feet with oak posts 8 inches square. All of the, 16 feet long for pillars, as they are today. From the pillars to the walls, the ceiling was flat. From one row of pillars to the other the arch was destined to be round. There was no question of roof loft or screen. The foundation was a field stone. The framework of the church was raised but it was necessary to roof it, make the siding in plans, inside and out, window frames and doors, a floor, benches, altar, etc. Their money was all spent. They dreamed of a new way to find some. They decided to have a two day picnic in the summer of 1881. It was a big affair for the time and place. It was held in the flats of the Ruscom River on George Sylvestre’s lands, as of today, where there was a nice bush lot by the river.
Never had there been so many tents or booths, as one old parishioner told me, who was 7 years old then. The temperature was ideal and the crowd huge. They came from neighbouring villages and from Windsor. They sold wine, beer and even whiskey. One carriage load brought wine from Belle River from a vine grower who had the reputation of making wine which exactly “hit the spot”. Another had charge of barrels of beer, and the whiskey came from the station at St. Clair. They served meals. One old man, poor devil, sat on a box and peeled potatoes from 5 o’clock in the morning until sunset. They drank and ate, heard speeches and amused themselves at all sorts of games, feats of strength and rides of all kinds. It was an unforgettable two days. The success was amazing. They raised $3000. That figure was doubtful. Had they even had half the amount, it would have appeared advantageous, truly remarkable, nevertheless, for the difficulty of the time, it was considered a big success for these days.