The type of work that went on there once again on the weekend is ancient.
Dry stone wall construction has gone on for thousands of years, and on Sunday in St. Raphael’s another project that applied the craft was completed, the southwest section of the restored dry stone double retaining wall in front of the Bishop’s House built by about a dozen pros and first-timers.
Young is an instructor with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada, and he runs his own business, S.A.Y. Stone, in Vankleek Hill. He’s no stranger to this historic hamlet just northeast of Williamstown, having overseen three dry stone walling workshops at the site over the last several years, as the Bishop’s House has made its slow but remarkable transition back to a stately property.
The wall in front is an important part of it, for structure, appearance and symbolism, the final section to be rebuilt representing a big challenge for those who participated in crafting it.
The workshop went on for many hours both days; it involved introductions, some basic principles and a lot of fairly heavy lifting.
He repeated the phrase “one stone over two, two stones over one,” quite a few times during the building process, the stones that get used usually coming from farmer’s fields, leftovers from an earlier build, or repurposed from the original wall. At the Bishop’s House, an historic structure dating back to 1808, the wall had long been crumbling, and Young said part of the unfolding issue over many decades was the tree root system pushing on the original wall.
He said that a new wall, if built properly and with good stones, can last hundreds of years.
Dry Stone Canada’s mandate is to teach and celebrate the heritage skill of building stone walls without the use of mortar. It seeks out historic walls that need conservation, and then use them — under the guidance of a professional heritage mason/instructor — to teach the skills to others. Dry Stone Canada first chose the 1826 curving stone wall of the Bishop’s House property for a course in 2018.
“Their stone-loving members come from many parts of Ontario to help mentor the students, and to work hard themselves on the reconstruction process,” said Brenda Baxter, president of the Fencibles trust group.
The group acquired the Bishop’s House not long after helping to save it from demolition in 2015, acquiring it and a strip of land that adjoins it to County Road 18 for a nominal $2 from the then-Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall.
The three-storey stone house was built by Rev. Macdonell, parish priest of St. Raphael’s, in the early 1800s, and later the first bishop of Ontario. The house has its original 1808 structure as well as two larger additions built in 1924.
The house was also the first seminary of education in pre-Confederation Canada, and it later served for several decades as a school for girls run by the Holy Cross sisters.