It was a simple beginning. A vacant lot. A tent. Laughing children. A few resolute young adults. The time was July 1929, and the place, the working class district of Rosemount.
Several families from the downtown Montreal Brethren assembly on St. Antoine Street had moved to the growing northeast suburb of Rosemount. They were among the many English drawn eastwards by ready employment in the local railway and shipyards. It was a long way, however, for these Christians to travel to the meeting place in town, and, they began to see their own community as a mission field for the gospel of Jesus Christ. After prayerful consideration of the opportunity, and with the wholehearted support of their home assembly, they began to make plans.
A vacant lot was chosen on the East Side of Fourth Avenue halfway between Holt and Dandurand. The owner of the land was approached and he readily granted them its temporary use. On a summer day in July 1929 they pitched a tent on the property, purposing to fill it with the many children who played on the avenues of Rosemount. Caring for children would remain a priority throughout the history of the Rosemount congregation.
Arthur “Fiddler” Smith and evangelist George Bentley, both originally from England, came from Toronto for one month of evening meetings in the tent. The children came for an hour around 6:30pm and sat in rapt attention to the music of Mr. Smith who walked up and down amongst them playing his fiddle and teaching them songs about Jesus. He was excellent with the children and Mr. Bentley preached powerfully to the many parents and other adults who gathered after the young ones had gone home.
Several people were converted and baptized during these summer meetings and the believers were encouraged to launch a new assembly in Rosemount that fall. On Sunday morning, September 8, 1929, they met in rented quarters at the corner of Holt and Eleventh Avenue where they celebrated the Lord’s Supper and conducted Sunday School for the first time. Altogether 25 adults and their children had hived off from the St. Antoine meeting to form the new congregation. These early members included James and Peggy Dawson, Ed and Phoebe McCann, John and Margaret Dawson, Mr. and Mrs. James Smith, and Robert Morgan. Some of the keener younger people included Archie and Maud Nielson, George and Edith Dixon, Jim and Anna Penman, Albert and Tilly Grakist, and James Whitelaw (soon to marry Molly Dawber).
What was this new assembly to be called? James Dawson proposed that it be known as “Ebenezer” (literally ‘stone of help’), citing I Samuel 7:12 where Samuel erected a stone in thanksgiving to God saying, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” God’s help had been great to these believers and they readily adopted the name, which in full was Ebenezer Gospel Hall. Little did they realize how much divine help they would soon need, for the very next month the October crash of 1929 plunged their world into economic and social chaos.
The full effects of the Depression were not immediately felt by Ebenezer, and the enthusiasm of those first summer meetings carried over into the fall and winter months. Through a series of activities including children’s meetings, tract distribution, door-to-door visitation, open-air street preaching, and personal evangelism, the assembly outgrew its initial premises by the spring of 1930. About 30 adults were breaking bread and over 100 children were gathering weekly when the decision was made to search for new quarters.
A new meeting place for Ebenezer was found after reading an announcement in the Gazette. A Canadian financial institution was wrongfully using rented premises on the southeast corner of Rosemount Boulevard and 6th Avenue as a bank. The owner of the building won his case in court, the facility became available, and the assembly began its 23-year residence there at the princely rent of $18 per month. The landlord and his wife, who lived upstairs to the meeting hall subsequently became believers and met with the local French Brethren assembly.
During the Depression years the rent, though increasing, was always paid, but there was very little money left for anything else. Many men lost their jobs or were given only one or two days worth of work per week. The winter months were especially hard and the cost of heating the building became more difficult. In the late 1930’s and early war years, a railway manager named Mr. Kelsall would often privately arrange for delivery of a few tons of coal to fill the near-empty bin. Although there was a shortage of money, a certain amount was always set aside for the mission field, and the practice of a separate missionary collection the third Sunday of the month was carried on until the 1960’s.
In the early days there was a full slate of weekly activities. On Sundays the Breaking of Bread was at 11:00am, the Sunday school in the afternoons at 3:00pm, and the Gospel Service at 7:00pm – a busy day for those who came a distance! For the first five years Tuesday evenings were for prayer and Thursdays for Bible study, but then these were combined into one Wednesday night meeting. The very popular children’s meetings were held on Friday nights, and street preaching was conducted on Masson Street on Saturday evenings. Other special events were the Thanksgiving conferences first held on 6th Avenue and then, because of the large numbers, at First United Church. Arend and Elsie Mooy with other members of the assembly regularly helped out at the Friendly Home, a residence for unwed mothers. Grace Dart Hospital patients were cheered up monthly for many years by the group visits led by David Mills and the Grakists.
Special mention must be made of Ebenezer’s children’s meetings which thousands of young ones attended in the 30’s and 40’s. The children had many fewer distractions than their counterparts today, and they would pack out the little hall every Friday evening. George Dixon would keep the young ones spellbound telling stories with lantern slides and using a projector that itself would heat up the premises. The children of the Depression would, of course, also appreciate the refreshments provided at the end of the program.
Street preaching in the 1930’s was conducted on the southeast corner of 9th Avenue and Masson. These meetings were well attended because the stores were open until at least 11:30pm on Saturday evenings. About 9:30pm the merchants (grocers and meat dealers) would start reducing the prices so that they would not be left with a lot of produce over the weekend. This attracted large crowds of people to Masson Street.
The stage was set for Mrs. Nielson to play James Dawson’s portable organ and the passing crowd would be asked to join in the singing of the hymns. There were few cars in that day so traffic did not pose a problem. As a rule, people of that era were more regular churchgoers, so that Methodist, Anglican, and Presbyterian voices quite willingly joined those of the Brethren in singing the hymns of the faith. Preaching was characteristically forceful, and this sidewalk pulpit was also a training ground for other church’s young preachers such as Jack MacBride who was later to become the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. At the end of the English open air meeting Mr. Gratton from a local French Brethren assembly would step right up and carry on in French. He also had a powerful voice and easily held a crowd.
The thirties and the War years brought many changes. In 1935 the James Dawsons returned to Scotland and one year later the Nielsons became Ebenezer’s first missionaries when they sailed to St. Kitt’s in the Caribbean. Thus, in the space of a year, two key leaders and founding families in the assembly were gone, and so the leadership of the meeting shifted to the above-mentioned younger ones. It was in 1942 that James Penman was appointed the first civil pastor of Ebenezer Gospel Hall and served until 1945 when he was transferred to Ontario. The War years took away several of the most promising young people and in the mid-to-late 1940’s there were about 50 adults meeting to break bread at Ebenezer. As always, the children’s work continued to draw large numbers.
One fall day in the mid-40’s Mr. Dixon was passing out pamphlets advertising the children’s program when he came across twin girls skipping on 8th Avenue The meeting had been moved from the evening to after school, and he asked the girls to inform their parents about this change. Then, wondering if he had better not tell the family himself, he visited their home where for the first time he met Theresa Lite. Tony and Theresa with their family became pillars in the assembly and Mr. Lite would soon be the driving force behind Ebenezer’s move to its own home.
In the late 1940’s the assembly was poised for an important move. It had outgrown its premises on 6th Avenue and a good number of young couples had begun to attend the meeting. The Lites, Robert and Fanny Sketcher and many others had brought their energy and vision into the fellowship. Jack Dawson and Harold Naylor were active in the leadership of Montreal Youth for Christ and through their and others contacts, new believers such as Cedric Potter and Fred Parnell had committed themselves to the Lord’s work at Ebenezer.
A building fund had been growing slowly for several years. A number of people reached into their savings to strengthen that capital base and Mr. Lite spearheaded the push to find land. Two lots on 13th Avenue at $1000 each were secured from the city of Montreal, and a groundbreaking service for the new building was conducted in the spring of 1953. It was now to be called Ebenezer Gospel Chapel.
The 1950’s were a time of significant growth of the Rosemount and surrounding districts as the parents of the baby boomers set up their homes. Five neighborhood English Protestant schools were soon filled to overflowing. Many more people began to attend the Chapel and it was in these years that several families from Ebenezer joined some others from Cote St. Luc Bible Chapel to found a new Brethren assembly in the West Island, Bethel Chapel. An extended preaching visit by Welshman W.E. Davies (known as ‘Uncle Bill” to the children) in the early 1960’s led to unprecedented spiritual renewal and growth at Ebenezer. The facilities again became inadequate for the church’s needs and in 1966 Jack Dawson piloted the addition of a Christian education wing, along with an attached apartment for visiting missionaries or preachers.
During this time period there were many changes in the way the assembly was reaching out to its community. The Sunday morning Breaking of Bread was followed by a Bible teaching service called the Family Bible Hour during which time the Sunday School met. Harold Naylor introduced a boys’ program called Christian Service Brigade to Ebenezer and through this ministry hundreds of young men were influenced for Christ. Pioneer Girls was also launched in the 1960’s and it grew steadily under the care of Gladys Potter, Bertha Naylor, Lydia Kimber and Eleanor Baumgartner. Some of the most capable Christian leaders today at Rosemount Bible Church and in other assemblies received valuable training in these programs.
Other ministries became very active at this time. High school and college age groups flourished under the leadership of a series of people including Emerson and Kay Elliott, the Potters, Jim and Eleanor Whitelaw, Ramez Attalah and others. Frontier Lodge played an important role in providing the young people with summer opportunities for service, fellowship and evangelism both in the children’s camps and in their own growing Youth Conference. A monthly inter-assembly youth night called Youth Challenge promoted a sense of the larger Christian community as did Ebenezer’s support of Youth For Christ and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.
The 70’s and 80’s brought both moments of exhilarating joy and yet moments of genuine introspection. In the 1970’s hundreds of young people were touched by the various ministries of the assembly. Gym Night at Rosemount High School became a great contact point for the youth leaders with the teenagers. Young Peoples was attended by large numbers and had a significant impact in the high school. Frontier Lodge’s May Weekend and Youth Conference were packed with students from Ebenezer and a June Weekend for high schoolers was born largely on the initiative of the assembly’s youth team. Many dedicated workers were involved and included such people as Delia and Deirdre Kerr, Blanche Hodder, Pat Warnholtz, Wesley Ikeda, Peter Fenty, Tom Muirhead and David Dawson.
The Road to Emmaus, a dramatic musicale directed by Ken Bresnen galvanized the spiritual commitment of many college students as they brought this challenging Easter message not only to the church but also to prisons and schools. The young people faithfully conducted Grace Dart Hospital visitation for many years. A prison ministry was facilitated by Jim Yorgey and many other youth participated in the work of Welcome Hall Mission. Frontier Lodge leaned heavily on Ebenezer for its staff including many camp directors such as the Whitelaws, the Bresnens, Heinz Archipow, Peter Daley, the Dawsons and the Coppieters. The assembly maintained a strong missionary emphasis, sponsoring many young people to the World Missions’ Congresses in Chicago and, in the 1970’s alone, commissioning 25 missionaries to short and long term service at home and overseas.
The spiritual momentum of the 1970’s resulted in the vision of a special center for teenagers at the Chapel. This led in 1981 to the renovation of the unfinished basement below the Christian education wing into The Open Door Coffee House- later named the Fellowship Hall, a Friday night musical outreach ministry that served our youth and their friends for several years. Bruce Coones, Ross Macdonald, Bob and Ron Thrall, Kelly Woodford and Jennifer Withnall were among the key leaders in this new ministry.
The political and cultural realities of a French Quebec had gathered a momentum of its own in the 1970’s and the fallout affected all English churches in Montreal. The longstanding trickle of Anglophones out of the province became in the new Quebec a steady stream, even a torrent of young, educated people coursing mostly westward to more comfortable political and social climates. Furthermore, for many years Rosemount and the whole East End had been witnessing the shift of their English populations, if not out of the province, then to the West Island or to other more English areas in the Montreal community. Many capable young men and women moved away at a time when they would normally be assuming important leadership roles at Ebenezer. Yet God was faithful, raising up others to step into various ministries and teaching the existing leadership to respond creatively to these changes.
One of the most important adaptations was the establishment of Home Bible Study Fellowships, which have served very effectively as small pastoral units for Ebenezer’s spread-out congregation. After the inception of these groups, about 50% of the assembly’s members found nurture and spiritual care in this weekly setting, and many new people were introduced to Christ through them.
Recognizing the growing number of English seniors in the area, Robert and Carolyn Thrall launched a ministry to these folk, and this was also a most effective service to the community. No one at the chapel will forget how Mrs. Clift, a widow living just a few doors away, first came to Ebenezer, became a believer in Christ and then months later developed cancer. The story of her last days is one of a previously lonely widow overwhelmed by the love and compassion of a newly adopted family.
The 1980’s saw another dozen Ebenezer members join the missionary ranks. Camp involvement extended to Parkside Ranch where many young people were won for Christ, and new opportunities for evangelism in the Montreal area have been opened up. In the last 2-3 years of the 80’s a new generation of committed young couples and families emerged at Ebenezer. Young men and women chose discipleship opportunities, and the leadership began to prepare them for greater responsibility in the church.
Not satisfied with these bright spots, the elders conducted a wide-ranging questionnaire to the whole assembly in August 1988. This survey and its fallout was another important juncture in Ebenezer’s history. (See Interest article, December 1989.) The elders learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the assembly and themselves as leaders, and the congregation responded positively both to the candid way in which issues were addressed and also to the willingness of the leadership to be vulnerable.
Among the many changes arising from the survey were the following: better visitor contact through the formation of a Sunday morning Welcome Team and the preparation of a new Welcome package; the formulation of specific goals for certain assembly ministries; the development of a Women’s Council; a major building renovation program led by Jean-Eudes Desmeules setting the pace for growing important ministries; the change of our name from Ebenezer Gospel Chapel to the more publicly understandable Rosemount Bible Church; plans for developing young leadership; new avenues to promote quality fellowship in the assembly; and new ministries to special interest groups, i.e. international students.
In 1989, at its 60th anniversary, Rosemount Bible Church stood at an important threshold. Sixty years of continuous service touching multiplied thousands of lives scattered across the globe was an awesome heritage. Indeed, “thus far has the Lord helped us (1 Sam 7:12, NIV). ” Although the challenges faced then by the assembly were different than those of 1929, the New Testament mandate to preach Christ, to nurture believers, and to serve its communities had not changed. To that end, on its 60th anniversary, Rosemount Bible Church freshly committed herself to creatively apply Biblical solutions to each new challenge, to look to God for His continued help in extending His kingdom, and to trust in Him to keep her faithful.