BY INEZ FRANKLIN
April 27th, 2016
Virtually every corner of the county was represented on April 16th at the Bishop’s House Gala in Williamstown. All 160 tickets were sold out weeks before the event.
The Gala was hosted by the Glengarry Fencibles Trust, an incorporated not-for-profit group of local citizens who have been actively seeking the preservation of the Bishop’s House since 2004. Its members’ dearest wish is to see the magnificent stone building restored to a state befitting its historical significance. It has been a long and arduous journey; one rife with frustration. Left vacant by its former owners while its fate was debated, the building has become ever more dilapidated. Things reached a crisis point last April when an application to demolish the structure was submitted to the Township of South Glengarry. To its great credit, municipal Council voted unanimously to veto the request. It proved a turning point for the would-be owners. The Glengarry Fencibles Trust acquired the property in August of 2015 and took full possession on March 31, 2016. The Gala was truly a celebration of that milestone, and the mood in the hall was festive.
The Board members spent a great deal of time and attention on the details for the Gala. Several strapping young men sporting authentic Glengarry Fencibles’ military uniforms were on hand to greet guests as they arrived at the Char-Lan Recreation Centre. Since the grounds of The Bishop’s House are an important feature of the historic property, the stairwell of the banquet hall was decorated to represent the Bishop’s Garden, with glimmering candle-lit lanterns, stately obelisks of greyed wood, and a handsome planter box filled with pussy-willows.
Inside the hall, 20 round tables were elegantly set for the feast. Glass bowls filled with bouquets of tulips and catkins made colourful seasonal centrepieces. David MacPhee and his students’ lively fiddle music set the tone for the cocktail hour.
Brenda Baxter welcomed everyone on behalf of The Glengarry Fencibles Trust Board members. They include Brenda Baxter, Summerstown; Tish Humphries, Williamstown; Dane Lanken, Alexandria; Heather Leger, Cornwall; Allan Macdonell, Green Valley and Cheryl Rogers, Green Valley.
Brenda recognized the contributions of Ron Rayside, heritage architect for the project. His firm, Rayside Labossière of Montreal, specializes in the sustainable reuse of former religious buildings. Ron has strong ties to Glengarry, including an historic family home in South Lancaster.
Cornwall lawyer Larry Filion’s months of legal work on behalf of the Trust culminated in their signing the ownership documents for the building in his office on March 31. He too is from Glengarry, and his advice and help have been invaluable.
Yet another Glengarry resident, Mark Burleton, of the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, oversees the gardens of Rideau Hall. He has offered to advise the Trust in the restoration of the heritage gardens surrounding the Bishop’s House.
Brenda extended heartfelt thanks for the public support the project has received to date. She pledged that the Glengarry Fencibles Trust would be careful stewards of funds raised for the restoration of the Bishop’s House and gardens.
The Reverend Ian MacMillan, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in South Lancaster, was invited to offer grace before the meal. The invitation was issued in recognition of the historic respect between the Catholic and Protestant faith communities, fostered by Bishop Macdonell with his neighbouring clergy members.
Flora Dumouchel’s skills as an auctioneer were put to the test later in the evening, when she cajoled and beguiled bidders to empty their pockets on an array of donated prizes, ranging from delicious-looking cakes to a two night stay in Mont Tremblant.
After an excellent dinner, guest speaker David Anderson of Williamstown took to the stage. His comprehensive presentation on “The Life of the Big Bishop, Alexander Macdonell” evoked a portrait of a courageous and principled man, ambitious for his people and tireless in his efforts for their well-being.
Bishop Alexander was a giant of a man, physically and historically. From his home base in St. Raphael’s, he established churches and schools across the province. To minster to his flock he traversed the countryside on foot, on horseback and by canoe. Named the first bishop of Ontario, he established the Diocese of Kingston, the second diocese in all of Canada. Across the road from St. Raphael’s Church he built the Bishop’s House in 1808, and in it he established the first college in Ontario.
Unafraid to fight for his country, Fr. Alexander Macdonell had raised a company of Glengarry Fencibles in Scotland in 1790, and was its chaplain. In Canada during the War of 1812, he raised a second company of Glengarry Fencibles and was its chaplain. Not one to ask of others that which he himself wouldn’t do, he accompanied his men to the battlefield, urging them onward in the fray and famously threatening to excommunicate laggards. Unwavering in his own faith, he was also far ahead of his time in his ecumenical attitude towards his Protestant neighbours. His first concern was the welfare of people; for that, he was beloved by his own, and respected by everyone.
In that same spirit, I urge everyone in our county to get behind the Glengarry Fencibles Trust members in their efforts to restore the Bishop’s House. There is no doubt that they will accomplish their goals. The Trust members between them possess a formidable set of skills and a broad range of talent. Each has an impressive resume of community service in a variety of other projects. They have physically worked to repair and preserve the Bishop’s House, ceaselessly advocated for its protection and restoration, and completed endless reams of paperwork in their quest to acquire the property and to access funds for its restoration. They have developed some truly inspiring plans for its use as a cultural, social and arts centre; also including a space in which the lives and public service of Canadian pioneers will be recognized.
You can read more about the history of the Bishop’s House, the biography of Rev. Alexander Macdonell, and the Glengarry Fencibles Trust’s plans for the property at www. bishopshouse.ca You’ll also find there information on how you can donate towards the project. The Fencibles are meeting at the St. Raphael’s Centre this Wednesday night, April 27, at 7 p.m. It’s open to the public. Take the opportunity to see what’s planned for the future.
When the Fencibles’ work is done, an important piece of our county’s history will be preserved for posterity. The Bishop’s House will be a jewel in our community, of immeasurable benefit to everyone. Just like the Big Bishop himself.
Congratulations to The Fencibles Trust members on the success of their Gala! It’s an auspicious beginning.
© The Glengarry News, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. pg 16
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