If you were to ask me which old building, be it a school, church or homestead, is my favourite, I could not give you an answer. I might be able to divide them into one of three groups such as just okay, nice, and, very nice, or perhaps my favourite interior, exterior or even best timed photo. I’m probably able to narrow them down to some categories such as best stone or brick church that is not in ruins, but even that would be difficult. I’ve photographed structures in the rain, in the snow, and in sweltering heat with skies tainted by wildfire smoke and each such condition produced an entirely different look. So I can’t really select favourites but there are certain structures that stand out in my memory for one reason or another. The Kenlis United Church is one such place.
History of the Church
On August 24, 1884 the first service of Kenlis Methodist Church was held in the home of Willard Garratt. Kenlis was a new village with very few amenities but it was growing. When the school house was built in 1885, church services were held there by Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterians and Quakers. The Board of Trustees of the Kenlis Methodist Church, Assinaboia, North West Territories (Saskatchewan wasn’t a province until 1905) met and decided to build a church. The Board contracted with a company called A.M. Fraser and Co to build the church for $2,021.00. The stones for the foundation were gathered locally by the farmers. In 1886 the church was completed.
In the local history book, Dance on the Bridge: A History of Abernethy and Area, Marion Lyster describes the completed church as follows:
In the corner stone, the one on the south east comer bearing the date the church was erected, was placed a tin box. A Christian Guardian (magazine) of the month and perhaps other documents were placed within. The church was fully furnished with pews, coco matting in the aisles and red carpet on the platform. Oil hanging lamps were later replaced by acetylene lights, then by gas lamps and finally by electricity in 1953.Marion Lyster – Dance on the Bridge: Page 214
The coco mats that Marion Lyster described as “in the aisles” are still there. They are so named because they’re made from coconut husk fibers. They were popular because they’re such durable matting. The coco mats that you will see below in the photographs of the interior of the church are very likely the original mats placed there in 1886. You can still buy coco mats although now they have a synthetic or vinyl backing. Nobody slips on coco mats. If a child runs around in play and somehow falls and slides on the matting it would be an unpleasant experience. They are great under your shoe but on bare skin they would feel like sandpaper.
I wonder if these coco mats make their own special contribution to the old building smell. I’m not referring to the moldy smell of some old buildings but rather an appealing scent of old wood, long gone candles and maybe even ancient coco mats all added together. These smells can wake up memories inside a person, something cherished, even if we don’t remember where or when that place was. That is how Kenlis United Church smells. It’s a good smell.
That image of the aisle shows a massive heating grate or register. Back in the early days of multi-floor heating they used gravity furnaces. These were real furnaces situated in the basement but they didn’t have electric fans because there was no electricity at that time. The furnace heated the heating element and the heating element heated the air which then would rise through these large grates simply because hot air rises. They worked quite well, albeit slowly, and used various fuels although coal was the most common. Gravity furnaces were very reliable because there wasn’t much to go wrong. These furnaces were always huge, or at least the ductwork was, and you’ll see that below where I present photos of the basement.
The Early History of Kenlis
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Kenlis was a growing community. Here’s Marion Lyster describing the area, “Kenlis, Assiniboia, N.W.T., described as one of the prettiest and most flourishing settlements in the broad expanse of our rich wheat producing prairies, was a thriving hamlet.”
With more people arriving to the Abernethy area it was inevitable that additional churches would be built. The Presbyterian Church was noteworthy as they had so much in common with the Methodists. Here is what Marion Lyster has to say about that.
The Presbyterians held their services in the (Kenlis) Methodist church till they built their own church across the road in 1909. Rev, Wm. Bell was the minister at that time. The church was opened on December 10, 1910. In the first minutes of the Session of the Kenlis Presbyterian church, September 21, 1906 we find that Elders Samuel Meck, John Sharp and Rev, Alex Robson were present. The Communion Role was revised with the number of members being now 25. Meetings were held in the homes till 1909. At a meeting of the Presbyterian congregation held in the Forrester’s Hall, Kenlis, on the first of November 1909, it was unanimously decided to build a Presbyterian church as soon as possible. It was also decided to buy the Cathedral Organ advertised in Eaton’s Catalogue at $125.00. The site for the church was given by Wm. lnkster.Marion Lyster – Dance on the Bridge: Page 216
As more people arrived to live in or near Kenlis there was a feeling of optimism for the future. The locals had good reason to be optimistic because the deed for the church property showed a strip of land reserved for the right of way by the C.P.R. This must mean that it was just a matter of time before the railway would pass right through Kenlis and that would put it on the map. In the quote below, Marion Lyster describes some of the businesses in Kenlis.
In the early 90’s Kenlis became a busy centre. A Iarge brick church was built by the Methodist c:ongregtion in 1896. A brick store, with upstairs hall, was erected on the south west corner, just east of the church.
A blacksmith shop, and a harness shop with a dwelling in connection, was built. ln 1900 a Methodist parsonage was constructed near the church. Several houses were erected. A medical doctor, veterinary surgeon and two ministers rook up residence at Kenlis. There was also a boarding house run by Frank Graham’s mother. In 1909 the Presbyterian church was built. Soon another large store was built.Marion Lyster – Dance on the Bridge: Page 246
Kenlis and the Railroad
HuIThe good times didn’t last long. In 1903 the railway came but not to Kenlis. What a disappointment that must have been for the people of Kenlis. The railway was built only 13km to the north giving Abernethy a big boost. It was still close enough for the farmers to haul their grain but not close enough for the hamlet of Kenlis to continue as a service centre. Many businesses hired men with teams of horses to drag their shops and stores to Abernethy. By 1925 the post office was closed and Kenlis residents received their mail in Abernethy. Eventually nothing would remain except for the Kenlis United Church.
When I was there to photograph Kenlis United I thought it was a rural church rather than a church built on a busy corner of a community that no longer existed. The railway gave and the railway took away.
Kenlis Tragic Events
Some might say that the fact that Kenlis all but disappeared was a tragedy in itself but the locals could adapt to that. There were other sorrowful events; the kind of events that most prairie communities experienced to some degree. Nearly every local history book will describe similar stories but some are just more poignant than others.
We’ll start with why you should never choose the site for the new town cemetery.
It was in June, 1891, that the site for the Kenlis cemetery was chosen. Mr. and Mrs. Bates were visiting at the Anderson home. During the afternoon, Mrs. Bates stood at the doorway looking northward over the two coulees which joined, forming a beautiful spot, surrounded on three sides by trees. Mrs. Bates exclaimed, “What a beautiful spot for a cemetery!” In less than three weeks, Mrs. Bates was the first to be buried in this beautiful cemetery, where so many of our pioneers are now buried. Soon Mr. and Mrs. Anderson buried their daughter, Jennie, (Mrs. Dan Pearse) close by.Marion Lyster – Dance on the Bridge: Page 246
I was curious if this could really have happened because sometimes local history books rely a bit too much on fading memories. Well, I need not have questioned the veracity of this matter because upon searching the cemetery online, I found that Mrs. Ida E Huffman Bates was indeed the first to be interred at Kenlis cemetery on June 4, 1891. The cemetery remained quite busy after that.
The most tragic story that I read about Kenlis has to be about the Henry and Rachael Shannon family. At page 536 we are told about the terrible toll taken by the diphtheria epidemic. I’ll let you read the words as they are written in that local history book.
Ten children were born to this couple. In April, 1903 tragedy hit the family very hard. For three days in a row they lost a child with diphtheria. Mr. Shannon had the job of burying his children by himself, as no one would go near them;
Mary Anne, aged eleven years;
Edith Grace aged five years; and
Edward aged three years.
Each body was wrapped with a sheet of carbolic and placed in their caskets and taken in the evening to the cemetery, to avoid meeting anyone. They are buried in the Kenlis cemetery. The minister went to the cemetery at a later date and consecrated the grounds.Dance on the Bridge : A History of Abernethy and Area. Page 536
I wondered why the bodies were wrapped in a sheet of carbolic and a quick search provided an explanation. Carbolic soap and powder was used in many schools to try to curb the incidences and deaths from contagious diseases such as diphtheria, measles and scarlet fever which spread through schools at an alarming rate. Source: Intriguing History. I’m surprised that the deceased were covered in carbolic material. Did they think that the virus would escape the grave? Maybe.
I’m so grateful for the vaccines against many of the old diseases that caused so much grief back in the early century and likely long before that as well. I found the following information about the American experience (which is likely similar to Canada): “Respiratory diphtheria has almost disappeared in the United States. Since 2004, the CDC has recorded no cases of respiratory diphtheria in the United States. In fewer than 75 years, diphtheria, which was once the leading cause of premature death of children, was virtually eliminated in the United States“.
The three Shannon children share one grave marker. I couldn’t verify that they died one day after another because the grave marker says only that they died in May of 1903 and gives their ages. In times like these in the early century exact dates were not as important as the actual events. Regardless of whether the three Shannon children died in three consecutive days or in the same month, it is a particularly tragic event. There are very few people who can truly say that they understand the despair that the Shannon family must have endured. One family who could empathize with the Shannons would be that of Henry and Helen Joslyn.
The Joslyn family suffered the loss of two sons, killed in action in WWI and another who died later of injuries from shrapnel. What the quote below missed is that the Joslyn family had four sons serve Canada in WWI. In fact the local newspaper said that they had five sons in the war but I couldn’t find any record of their fifth son being in WWI (although he was of the right age). Their youngest son John Charleton Joslyn returned at the end of the war and worked as a school teacher in Saskatchewan. He died at age 76.
Rev. J.H.L. Joslyn 1918-21, came to Abernethy the last year of World War I. The loss of two sons, killed in action, and another son who died of injuries received in action, was a hard blow to a beloved couple. The youngest son, Jack, taught school at Kenlis in 1920.Marion Lyster – Dance on the Bridge: Page 216
The Reverend John Henry Lyman Joslyn didn’t live in Kenlis for very long. He and his family moved frequently. I looked up their families records in the federal WWI database and found some interesting facts. Two sons were missing in action, one of which is named on the Vimy Ridge Memorial; one son took shrapnel in his eye and had to have it replaced with a glass eye. He died at the age of 41, apparently because of complications due to the shrapnel. Their youngest son, a school teacher, lived to the age of 76. This family gave a lot for Canada.
These two images in the above circles are the Vimy Ridge memorials for Lieutenant Harold Waddell Joslyn and Private Robert Wray Joslyn. Click on either circle to enlarge. Click the X to return to normal. The third circle is a newspaper article about Lieutenant Harold Waddell Joslyn.
I will close this part of the blog by describing a puzzling situation with the two Joslyn brothers that were killed in action. Lieutenant Harold Waddell Joslyn reports a birth date of June 10, 1893 and PVT Robert Wray Joslyn reports a birth date of October 9, 1893. Both clearly show the same parents. I’m not a biologist but four months minus a day is not long enough to have a brother. It’s possible that one of them lied about their age to be able to enlist but I only say that because nothing else seems to make sense. As to why the newspaper says that there were five Joslyns in the war, I just count that as a mistake because there is no record of their other brother, Cecil Earle Joslyn having been in the war. The federal government records do show an E.B. Joslyn as a rejected volunteer. Did he use a different first name? No other information about him is provided.
Kenlis Church Politics
There was something of a division or subtle rivalry between the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Perhaps it was because they had so much in common – the same but different – or maybe nobody knows the reason for it. However according to a story by Marion Lyster, the rivalry was enough that a young Methodist pastor must have thought he would be turned away when he stopped at house of a Presbyterian family to seek directions.
In one of Rev. A. Thompson’s letters he speaks of the rivalry between the Methodists and Presbyterians. “In those days and in that section the Presbyterians and Methodists did not have close dealings with each other”. He tells of losing his way and arriving at a little farm house, where he received more than “directions” -a hearty welcome and a good meal. “That Presbyterian friendliness wrote something very deep into the heart of the young Methodist minister just starting on his first field”.Marion Lyster – Dance on the Bridge: Page 216
This rivalry made things even more difficult when the time came to merge the Methodists and Presbyterians together to become one denomination. The United Church was founded in 1925 as a merger of four Protestant denominations with a total combined membership of about 600,000 members: the Methodist Church, Canada, the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, two-thirds of the congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the Association of Local Union Churches, a movement predominantly of the Canadian Prairie provinces. Source: Wikipedia. The union consisted of four denominations (later on there would be a fifth) but it was primarily a union of Methodists and Presbyterians.
Whenever I’ve had reason to think about that union of four denominations into one, I’ve considered it to be primarily of a rebranding nature. Just pull down the Methodist or Presbyterian sign and put up a United Church sign. People used to become attached to a particular denomination and identify with it. That is much less true now but in the early century, and certainly prior to then, the local church and denomination was the most constant thing in peoples lives. However in rural areas where there was a Methodist Church quite close to a Presbyterian Church it would have been especially challenging to merge because one of the church buildings would be closed and sold. The rationalization of churches in rural areas was necessary because the younger population was moving to larger centres and automobiles made it possible to go a little further from home on Sunday mornings. This is a common theme in my blog posts that feature schools and churches. The Kenlis situation was somewhat unique, at least insofar as my blog posts have covered. In Kenlis, two “competing” churches stood within sight of each other were told by their respective denomination to find a way to merge. In other words they were told to “make it happen”. Here is what Marion Lyster has to say about the union effort (her comments below pertain to the churches in nearby Abernethy but they could describe the situation in many prairie towns)..
Rev. J. Robinson, a small Scotsman, came to Abernethy charge at a difficult time for the churches, namely, Local Union, then Organic Union in 1925. Congregations were very small. Some people could not accept the fact that there was no more Methodist or Presbyterian Church, so stayed away from church.Marion Lyster – Dance on the Bridge: Page 216
The Kenlis Methodist Church building, being the larger stone and brick church, was selected as the building to be continued under the new name of Kenlis United Church. The wooden Presbyterian Church was sold to the Lutheran congregation at Maple Green. One more structure from the once busy centre of Kenlis was gone. Now nothing remains except the Kenlis United Church (previously the Kenlis Methodist Church). Everything else, except the cemetery, is gone.
The image above is in the public domain. I’ve included it because this image shows Kenlis United Church in 2006 (I think the images is older than 2006). The green and aging roof is the most obvious change from my 2019 images. If the community or the Province hadn’t invested in a new roof when they did I’m fairly certain that this blog would be about the ruins of the Kenlis Church. Once the roof goes, everything goes.
Time for everyone’s architecture lesson. What are the vertical projections on the side of the exterior walls called? If you said buttresses give yourself a pat on the back. Buttresses are common on brick and stone structures because the walls are so heavy. The buttresses reinforce the walls to offset any tendency for the wall to tip outward. Occasionally they are added after the fact and as needed. The one buttress shown attached to the back of the church below, appears to be in worse condition than the wall itself.
This church basement was used for the Kenlis High School beginning in 1935. It was a brilliant idea because by using the church basement there were no additional costs for a structure.
Then on August 23, 1935 a meeting of the Kenlis School board and 22 interested parents from Kenlis, Pheasant Plains and Heather, was held to discuss plans for establishing a Rural High School in Kenlis. A room, 18 feet by 27 feet, in the basement of the United Church was considered quite suitable and was approved by R.L. Homing (Supt. of Schools). The room, with four windows and a blank wall for a twenty foot blackboard, was easily heated, and operated with little expense. It is recorded that “there was not one sentiment of opposition voiced” regarding the proposal. On September 9, 1935 the Kenlis Rural High School opened with 22 pupils in attendance, and Miss Margaret McKim (no previous experience) as teacher at a salary of $500.00 per annum. Mr. Allen (public school teacher) taught the Sciences.Dance on the Bridge: Page 241
That basement floor shows just how difficult it is to construct buildings on the prairies. The ground is often moving with the seasons so some engineering is required to deal with that movement. The floor could be pushing up from frost heaves or the entire building could be slowing sinking where the heavy walls are.
The last service in the Kenlis church was held on August 20, 1972. I’m glad that this is a protected historic site. There are so many stories connected to this fine old church. The tragic deaths from diphtheria, the many sons (and maybe daughters) who didn’t come home from WWI, the good years and bad. It can all be found at Kenlis. Just walk on those coco mats and smell the air that is thick with memories. This was Kenlis, Saskatchewan.
- Dance on the Bridge: A History of Abernethy and Area. 1983, The Abernathy Historical Association. Printed in Regina by W.A. Print Works Ltd.
- The Canadian Virtual War Memorial – Harold Waddell Joslyn
- The Canadian Virtual War Memorial – Robert Wray Joslyn
- Canada’s Historic Places – https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=1954
- History of Vaccines website – https://historyofvaccines.org/
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.