"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, February 17, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Rev. William Murdoch Gillespie and the Presbyterian Church

When Rev. William Murdoch Gillespie married Helen Corinne Harrison in the Presbyterian church on June 19, 1914, a good number of the congregations from both churches turned out because this young and elegant couple would be settling in the manse come February.(1) The whole village was curious to see just who was taking the place of the beloved and respected Rev. Alexander L. Fraser, off to farther spiritual and literary pastures. Though he would be keenly missed, Rev. Fraser assured the village that Rev. Gillespie was a fine pastor, an active citizen and a grand speaker, who would offer the congregation a “whiff of the heather.” Though his widowed mother is long settled at Maccan, he and his several brothers still have the heart of the Highlands in them.

Duly, on February 3, 1915, Rev. Gillespie was inducted in the Great Village Presbyterian church, and he and his wife moved into the manse. And villagers accustomed quickly to their lively and dedicated minister.

The Presbyterian Manse

The Presbyterian church is literally the centre of Great Village and the heart of the community’s activities. It houses the founding faith of the village itself, brought by the first English settlers in the 1770s. The church is an impressive building; its 112 foot steeple towers over the little valley in which the village is nestled. There has been a church on this site since 1845. The one built then was even larger than the edifice which stands now. It was 75 feet long and 50 feet wide and sat 1200 people. That church finally got a bell, all the way from Boston, in 1871. The congregation built its commodious and comfortable manse in 1877. The church flourished.

St. James Presbyterian Church, circa 1890s

Tragedy struck in 1882 when this grand church was burnt to the ground. Undaunted, the congregation set to work erecting a new church on the same site. The building committee hired J.C. Dumaresq, a well-known architect, to design the building. Though smaller in size (55 by 40 feet), this church was equally impressive in its neo-gothic style with pseudo-flying buttresses.(2)

The dedication service in 1884 was a joyous and crowded event. The bell, which had fallen and cracked in the fire, had been sent back to Boston to be melted down and recast, and returned to ring again, not only to call parishioners to worship, but also as a fire alarm! On a clear calm Sunday morning it can be heard from miles.

This church was threatened by fire too, in October 1895, when a neighbouring barn burned to the ground; but the damage was slight and services were not disrupted.

The congregation of the Presbyterian church is one of the most active in the county. It supports several charitable societies which have operated for years. In 1877 a Ladies Aid Society was formed. Ten years later a branch of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society was established. Two years latter, in 1889, a Seed Sowers’ Mission Band was formed and around the same time the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavour began its work. The church also has an active choir, which is currently raising money for a new organ.

These groups keep themselves busy raising money for charity and missionary work, as well as aiding the congregation as a whole, especially the Social Committee, in raising funds for the church itself. The Women’s Foreign Mission Society holds a very popular garden party on the manse lawn at the beginning of July, in time to offer the best strawberry shortcake anywhere. These ladies meet every Thursday afternoon in the pastor’s room of the church, but also gather in parlours, especially in winter when the church is cold, its two furnaces stoked up only on Sunday. The Mission Band is famous for its Christmas sale, an event they prepare for all year, collecting a vast array of goods from aprons to preserves, chow chow and quilts. They meet every Saturday afternoon in the vestry of the church. The Ladies’ Aid Society devotes much of its time to visiting sick parishioners and making sure they are not in want. They work closely with the Social Committee and organize lectures and teas.

The Christian Endeavour taps all the energy of the young by organizing musicales: readings, recitations, songs and instrumentals, which provide great pleasure to the usually packed houses. The Christian Endeavour are meeting tonight in the Sunday School room, just before the big lecture, to discuss their part in a grand musicale, which will be held in mid-August in cooperation with the choir. Rev. Gillespie’s young brother James, a well-known violinist, has agreed to perform solo and in duet with Donald MacLachlan. These two alone will guarantee a large crowd. The programme is extensive however, with the principal of the school, Mr. R.N. Bagnell, set to sing and read, and Miss Bella Hill, Miss Clara Kent, Miss Ethel Doyle, Miss Ruth Peppard, Miss Belle Chisholm, Miss Harriet Carter and Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson Hill all contributing their considerable musical and oratorical talents. Even Rev. Gillespie has agreed to sing “Jock O’Hazeldean,” a treat any time. The organ fund will be amply augmented.

The church is also a prime location for lecturers, who come to town regularly to speak. The church still seats more people than any other building in town, nearly 1000, so when a popular speaker stops by, the church is the spot. Tonight is a very special lecture. Mrs. Gillespie’s sister, Miss Harrison, is a missionary. She arrived for an extended furlough in November last year. She has given a number of talks to the Women’s Missionary Societies of both churches, but these have been for the members alone. This evening she will give an illustrated public talk about her missionary work in India. She is due to return to the foreign field in August and this will be the only opportunity for the whole community to hear about her work in this distant country.

The Rev. and Mrs. Gillespie are held in high regard by all the villagers now, their home a welcoming place for family, friends and neighbours. The Rev. is such a lively fellow, and always has a smile and hello for everyone, big or small. As soon as the roads dried out this spring, Rev. Gillespie could be seen wheeling around the Village. Cycling has always been popular in the village, but to see a man of the cloth making his visits on a bicycle was a bit of an excitement and surprise. Everyone is used to it now, except for a few of the old ladies and gents who still consider it undignified.

Rev. William Murdoch Gillispie in Buenos Aires

As soon as Rev. Gillespie settled into his charge, he was involved in many community activities. He sealed himself in the good will of the village when he organized the Boy Scout band. He is enthusiastically promoting it among the lads. While he is a serious spiritual leader, Rev. Gillespie has a twinkle in his eye, and even the most staid parishioner appreciates a sense of humour ─ and especially the lads in the Boy Scout band.

One of the regular practices of the ministers from both churches in the village is to exchange pulpits with each other and with the pastors of neighbouring communities. Sometimes it seems like musical pulpits, especially during the summer and fall when the roads are good and travel is easiest. This Sunday Rev. Gillespie will change pulpits with Rev. L.P. Archibald of Central Economy. Rev. Gillespie’s sermons are always deeply appreciated. He has given much comfort and hope to his parishioners who have watched their sons, brothers and neighbours march off to war. Rev. Gillespie himself knows directly the feeling this provokes as one of his own brothers, Robert, enlisted and is now in France. The casualty lists have started to come in earnest, and the patriotic fever of the early months of the conflict are being tempered with concern and growing sorrow.(3)

Today Rev. Gillespie is busy in his usual way. He spends the morning in study and writing. After lunch he makes his usual rounds of visits to see sick parishioners, and several of the ladies of the Missionary Society, drinks more tea than he knows he should. He also stops by Hill’s store to talk with Ruth Hill about her Sunday School lesson, bringing her some pamphlets he received from the Presbytery. Corinne and her sister are hosting a small afternoon tea, so supper will be late. The lecture begins at 8:00 p.m. The gentlemen of the Social Committee will be at the church early to open it up, so Rev. Gillespie can wait and stroll down with his wife and sister-in-law. As he wheels around town on his bicycle he passes the Bulmer house several times. Elizabeth Bulmer is a staunch Baptist, but William, who Rev. Gillespie always enjoys talking to, attends both churches, a not uncommon practice for some of the older folks in the village. Rev. Gillespie knows today is a difficult one for the Bulmers, having their daughter, Mrs. Bishop, go off to the hospital in Dartmouth. Mrs. Bishop’s little daughter, Elizabeth, plays in the yard as he passes by in the afternoon. The Rev. always smiles when he sees her bright face. Today she chatters to herself and her dolls near the flower beds Elizabeth Bulmer is so famous for. He wonders if she really knows what has happened. As he passes she looks up. He smiles and tips his hat. She smiles back at him and waves her little hand.


1. A notice for this wedding is found in the Truro Daily News, 19 June 1914, 8. However, in the Oxford Journal News, 11 June 1914, the following notice appeared (the discrepancy is puzzling indeed).”An exceedingly pretty wedding was celebrated in the Presbyterian Church, Maccan, on Tuesday afternoon, June 2nd, between the Rev. William Murdock [sic] Gillespie, B.A., the minister of the Presbyterian Church, River Hebert & Miss Helen Coridine [sic] Harrison, youngest daughter of Jeptha Harrison, Esq. of Maccan. The officiating clergyman being the Rev. John Urwin Bell, brother-in-law of the bridegroom, Cunard. The bride was attired in a beautiful white charmeuse silk dress with trimmings of white minion & bridal veil wreathed with orange blossoms.”

2. In 1995 the Nova Scotia Provincial Government, Heritage Division, designated the Presbyterian church (now the St. James United Church) a Heritage Property. Ceremonies were held in conjunction with the church’s 150th Anniversary.

3. In September 1916, Rev. Gillespie received word that Robert was severely injured. He survived and returned home. On November 8, the following account appeared in the Truro Daily News: “Rev. Murdoch Gillespie gave an exceptionally interesting address last Sunday evening on the text Jer. 8:30 [sic], “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” The Reverend gentleman took as his subject the harvest of this war, which he pointed out, will be a plentiful one before the winter is over; yet he urged his hearers amid all their tears for the loved ones now so far away, to “keep the home fires burning,” and by bright letters and well-filled Christmas boxes to cheer the brave laddies in their honorable fight for liberty of our British Empire.” Rev. Gillespie had a most interesting connection to Elizabeth Bishop. Prior to his marriage in 1914, it appears that Rev. Gillispie spent time in Brazil. He ministered at the Great Village Presbyterian church until 1919, and then he returned to South America, where he ministered in Bahai Blanca, Argentina. One wonders if “the little picture with big ears” over heard villagers talk about Rev. Gillespie’s South American sojourns.

{Ed. Note: Just a reminder, you can read this "A Day in the Life of Great Village" in sequence if you click on the "Nova Scotia Connections" link in the menu bar at the top.}

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