HISTORY OF EARLY SETTLEMENT AND SPIRITUAL LIFE OF THE ALSACE/POWASSAN AREA TO 1943
The first missionaries in the area arrived around 1874, travelling the Rosseau-Nipissing Road, the first colonization road from southern Ontario to northern Ontario. These were mainly French Jesuit missionaries. Until the building of the Rosseau-Nipissing Road, the only access to this region and to those farther north was by the various waterways.
The history behind the Rosseau-Nipissing Road is an interesting one and its importance to the early pioneers is well worth mentioning. In 1844, the road was designated as a Development Road by the Canadian government. The surveying was completed in 1865, and construction began the following year. It was open for winter travel in 1873 and navigable for wheeled vehicles in 1875.
The Rosseau-Nipissing Road was instrumental in the settling of the community of Alsace and what is now known as Nipissing Township. According to some of the descendants of the early settlers of the area including Joe Ulrick, Susan Toeppner, Joseph Grabowski and Earl Gerber, the latter of whom was keenly interested in the pioneers and their history, a great number of settlers travelled up this particular road to this area.
As a result of the possibility of northern travel, the Vicariate Apostolic of Northern Canada was formed in February 1874, with Bishop Jamot as the first Vicar-Apostolic (Bishop). The districts of Muskoka, Parry Sound, Nipissing (western portion), Sudbury, Algoma and Thunder Bay were detached from the Diocese of Ottawa in order to create the Vicariate. The southern part of this territory formed the present Diocese of Peterborough in 1882.
Bishop John Francis Jamot was originally from France. When he first came north, he was a member of the Toronto Diocese. He lived in Sault Ste. Marie for two years, the largest northern centre at the time. However, the close of the navigation season in late autumn curtailed his travel to the missions. Furthermore, the more southerly areas were becoming populated due to the opening of roads. Thus, in 1876, Bishop Jamot moved to Bracebridge, the capital of the combined districts of Parry Sound - Muskoka. His episcopal see was therefore first located in Bracebridge. Bishop Jamot was instrumental in bringing settlers to the north, some of whom had previously settled in southern Ontario around New Germany, Berlin (now Kitchener) and surrounding area. His recruitment methods included letters to two newspapers, "The Irish Canadian", and "The Tribune".
Quite a number of the early settlers were also attracted by advertisements placed in various European newspapers, both Catholic and others. These ads were placed by the Canadian government and the Catholic Church in order to encourage the settlement of Canada. They featured the offer of 100 acres of "Free Grant Land" with a registration fee of $7.00. As part of the agreement, settlers were required to build a cabin, clear and cultivate 15 acres of land within a 5 year period and also to labour for three years in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. These advertisement served as an attraction to many, including Francis (Frank) and Andrew Ulrick, who both deserted their positions in the two armies (French and German) and came immediately to Canada. Their sister Louise joined them later as well. The influx of people from the region of Alsace Lorraine in Germany was so great that the community here was also named Alsace. This community was divided to some extent into a few small groups: the German settlement, the Polish settlement, the Swiss settlement and Belgium, a Flemish Settlement.
On their way north, these settlers travelled by way of the Grand Trunk Railroad to Gravenhurst. From there they sailed in small, wood-burning steamers through Lakes Muskoka and Rosseau to the settlement of Rosseau, which today is in the Bracebridge Parish. The Rosseau-Nipissing Road, a stage road, ran from Rosseau through Magnetewan, Commanda and Alsace to Nipissing, a distance of about 96 kilometres. If settlers wished, they could continue on across Lake Nipissing and farther north. Settlements began along this small road, and the pioneers moved inland, especially after the construction of the railways from Gravenhurst and Pembroke to North Bay in 1885.
There were two settlements of Catholic people in this area. They were Alsace, close to present day Commanda, and Barrett, closer to present day Trout Creek. Bishop Jamot, accompanied by Father Nadeau, a Jesuit from Parry Sound, came to visit the area by way of the Nipissing Road. He offered Mass at the temporary home of James Barrett at Magolski's Corners in Alsace in 1877. This was the first Mass offered in the area now served by the parishes of Trout Creek and Powassan. Magolski's corners was near the present Alsace church site and was the first stopping place on the Nipissing Road north of Commanda. The Bishop encouraged the people there to build a church. This they did, and in 1878 a log church dedicated to St. John the Evangelist was opened at Alsace and blessed by Bishop Jamot. The church was situated on the present-day cemetery grounds at Alsace. The land was donated by John Hurrell. All the work was done by the local people. Logs were squared on the site, and cedar shingles were made by hand.
The log church built at Alsace in 1878 measured about 9 1/2 by 8 1/2 metres. One of the parishioners, Mrs. Susan Toeppner, vividly recalls this church. The interior was whitewashed. Planks were used for pews, the floor was made of pine boards, and parishioners were called to their monthly mass by a hand-held bell. Instead of a sanctuary lamp, a wooden dove which was carved by one of the pioneers, Mrs. John Cook, was suspended in front of the altar. The first mass in the log church was celebrated by Father Theobold Spetz from Kitchener. Interestingly, the early settlers at Alsace followed their European traditions and were segregated in church -- men sat on one side, while the women and children sat on the other.
In its first few years, the Alsace Church was ministered by a number of missionary priests. Father J.P. Famy, a Jesuit and pastor of Parry Harbor (near Parry Sound) attended to the faithful from 1878 to 1880. In 1881 Father Theobold Spetz serviced the area, followed by Father D.B. O'Loane in 1882.
Land was also donated at the Barrett settlement, and a frame church, St. Mary's, was built there some time prior to November 1882. The church was built on what was known as the Barrett Road, a road running from the Nipissing Road at Commanda to the South River, North West of Trout Creek. It was built on lot 37, concession 7, South Himsworth Township, near the bridge over the South River. The first three bishops of Peterborough administered the Sacrament of Confirmation in that church. In August 1884, when Bishop Jamot visited the missions of Alsace and Barrett, he recorded that they served approximately 80 families living in the Townships of Gurd, Himsworth and Nipissing, and that these people were of Irish, German and Polish origin. Also, at that time, more donations of land in the Barrett settlement were made to Bishop Jamot by James Barrett, Michael Corkery and James Corkery.
The old St. Mary's cemetery of the Barrett settlement is all that remains of the original community. Research of early records has shown burials from 1881 to 1895, many of them infants and children. (Source: Gladys Piper) This cemetery located on lot 37 concession 7 in South Himsworth Township was staked and marked for posterity by a white six foot cross in Centennial Year 1967 by the parishioners of Sacred Heart Church, Trout Creek. For several years, Herb Osborne cleared the overgrowth in the cemetery. Since 1995 a group of volunteers have cleaned this cemetery each fall. In 1996 a new ten foot cross, with a plaque for the years 1877 to 1895, was made by Vic Kelly, and was erected in the large stone pile in front of the old cemetery. It replaced the old cross that had deteriorated over the years. There have been no markers in the cemetery for many years now, although many indentations are very noticeable in the ground. Square head nails and spikes from wooden markers have been found. Although some bodies have been exhumed and moved to other cemeteries, many remain. If a person died of a contagious disease, the grave remained untouched. Research shows names such as Weiler, Hummel, Busch, Albretch, O'Heare, Langevin, Schmidt, Hickey, Barrett, Fischer, Schlosser, Corkery, Aultman and Dietrich remain buried in the cemetery today. (Source: Gladys Piper)
There is a story behind the large stone pile in front of St. Mary's Cemetery. James Kelly, whose father John was one of the Barrett settlement pioneers, said that the priest had asked all the farmers who were clearing land to bring stones to build a new church. The new church, however, was never built. In 1886 the railroad came through to the east of the South River, through what was to be Trout Creek. The Barrett post office closed up on April 1895 and by 1896, the settlement ceased to be the center of the thriving community it once was. The 1896 Diocese records showed that the Barrett mission no longer existed. It is believed that sometime between 1892 and 1896 the frame church was moved to the west end of the Barret Road, where it can still be seen on the farm of the late Josephine Stephan (nee Dombrowski), Commanda. (Source: Vic Kelly) The church was remodelled into a
home for the Dombrowski's when their own home burnt to the ground. After Josephine's family eventually rebuilt another home, the old church served as a greenhouse for Josephine.
This history of the Alsace Church from the publication THE CATHOLIC FAITH COMMUNITIES ALSACE / POWASSAN / NIPISSING "A History" 1877 - 2002. Pauline Guzik, Editor. It is available for reading at the Powassan & District Public Library 971.315 GUZ