Places of Worship - and Christmas - in the 'Village' of Yarmouth!
By Peter Eldridge (December 2008)
The "Village" of Yarmouth?? Well, in the mid 1800s that's how it was described in the Yarmouth Herald of the day. The Herald describes a closely-knit small community centered at "Moody's Corner" (Argyle & Main), stretching half-a-dozen blocks from Barnard Street, along Main Street, up Church Hill/Butler's Hill and out past where the Yarmouth Golf & Country Club is today.
Christmas around 1850 was celebrated religiously in the village of Yarmouth, made up mainly of Protestant immigrants from the British Isles and New England (Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians), and Roman Catholics especially of Irish ancestry, many of whom had originally landed in Saint John.
Although the first visitors to the Yarmouth area likely were Portuguese fishermen, and French explorers like Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s and 1600s, the first permanent settlers arrived in 1761 aboard the schooner Pompey Dick from the New England region, sailing into the Chebogue River, shortly thereafter then moving to the Kelleys Cove shore. These (especially land-grant Planters) were followed not too long afterward by both white and black "Loyalists" after the American Revolution in 1776. Gradually, the early settlers and their descendants moved north along the Yarmouth shore to the present area of Argyle and Main streets. "Moody's Corner" became the social and business center of the community - at the intersection of the principal trails/roads, and close to the harbour for shipbuilding and trade.
Being likely the first church in the area, there is some historical reference to the construction of a Congregational meeting-house near Kelleys Cove in the mid 1700s.
All of these early immigrants in the village predated the arrival of later residents and immigrants looking for work in what was to become the burgeoning shipbuilding trade of Yarmouth in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Especially noteworthy at this later time was the increasing influx of French Acadians with their skills in building, along with enterprising Lebanese from the Middle East, and Jews from eastern Europe (who celebrated Hanukkah around the same time of year as Christmas). And all of these gradually became familiar with the adaptive ways of the Mi'kmaq people, many of whom had been Christianized by the Acadian clergy. Interesting to remember - within one or other of these ethnic groups were the ancestors of most of the present-day residents of Yarmouth!
Reading historical sources about the Yarmouth area, it is evident that religion played a very big part in the life of the early settlers and their immediate descendants. Interestingly, in celebrating their faith, many of these immigrants had come to North America, especially "Acadia", desperate to escape religious and/or political persecution, as well as poor living and working conditions, often famine conditions, in their home countries.
Following early settlement, churches began to spring up in the village and soon were expanded or relocated to another site within the community as population increased, especially during the late 1800s. In early photos, the tall spires of numerous churches are clearly visible.
Today, it is well worth a brief tour of half-a-dozen blocks in south-end Yarmouth to observe where things were historically, and what survives to this day. Suggesting a kind of sequential route, traveling south from down-town Yarmouth today, the first Catholic center for worship was in a converted work-shop on lower Barnard Street, donated by a congregation member at that time. Shortly after the mid 1800s, a regular parish church was built there (a memorial plaque marks the location), with the services of a priest traveling in from Wedgeport along the Argyle trail.
Following along the main village road (Main Street), immediately south of Argyle Street corner was "Church Hill", significantly so-named, located at the center of the early community! At the top of the hill, on the west (right) side stood Holy Trinity Anglican Church (1807-1872) following the formation of a church congregation in the late 1700s. The old Anglican cemetery (1809) remaining there today marks the location of the church, when burials would have been behind the church building, on the steep slope down towards the harbour. Burials for non-Anglicans Protestants were reportedly along the wagon trail or by boat to the early cemetery near the present Grand Hotel, until the opening of Mountain Cemetery in 1860. Both of these latter cemeteries would presumably have been near the outer edges of the village.
Opposite the site of the original Holy Trinity Church on Main Street is "Church Street", at the east end of which today are the remains of the original Roman Catholic cemetery, now next to where the first fairway of the Yarmouth Golf and Country Club is situated (Kempt Street). Following weathering and vandalism over the years, headstones in the cemetery have recently been grouped together respectfully, along with signage listing those buried there (early Irish in particular). This renewal project was carried out through the combined efforts of a former pastor of Notre Dame parish and the Yarmouth County Museum Archives. Like other community cemeteries during the mid 1800s, this cemetery would also have been "out in the country" some distance from the main center of the village.
At the corner of Argyle and William Streets was Temple Baptist Church with its classically- ornate wooden interior. William Street was the residential location for the homes of some of the prominent business people of the later 1800s. Yarmouth Natal Day parades and other recreational activities (Christmas parades??) were sometimes held there, with viewing stands, perhaps along what was to become much later the "Gateways" baseball field.
Thinking back to the bustling village of Yarmouth in the mid 1800s, one can imagine Christmas in the various churches being a very important time of religious and family celebration. And at Moody's Corner, as well as in the early shops on Main and Argyle Streets, there would have been festive decorations and an attractive display of sale items imported from England, and from Boston and New York via the very active ferry service. Sailing ships moored in the harbour below would also have likely been decorated during the brief period of rest from the sea - all reminiscent of a warm Charles Dickens Christmas scene - right here in present-day south-end Yarmouth!