The Church

Father Lavin began accumulating funds towards a new church in 1885. He started the fund with a donation of $500 of his own. He traveled the roads of the parish enlisting every family in his campaign to erect a worthy house of worship. Some of the donations were pathetically small, just a couple of dollars a year. Others, like Father Lavin’s, were spectacular for the times. Father Foley donated his nearly new buggy in lieu of cash. The vehicle had a value of over $100 or half a year’s wages for a working man. Every parish family was asked to pledge a special donation each year until enough money was accumulated. Mrs. Peter Farrell sold a yearling heifer and donated the price, while Margaret Farrell raised and sold a flock of turkeys as her contribution. As young men, John and Will Coady went to the shanty and worked all winter for $75 each. Upon their return from the lumber camp in the spring, they donated their entire winter’s earnings to the church fund. Every penny of every contribution was counted in Father Lavin’s meticulous accounts. By 1891, there was enough money to justify the construction of a new church with its dependent buildings.

In his report on Pakenham of May 27, 1891, Bishop Duhamel writes:

“The time has come to build a new Church, sacristy and presbytery. We order that plans should be asked (Bishop J.T. Duhamel) of a good architect. When they are drawn, they will be shown to us and if found suitable, tenders will be called for and the contract will be let so that the work of building may commence early this fall. We beg of the Sacred Heart of Jesus a special blessing on this work.”

In preparation for the new church, a new site was found on the bluff dominating Pakenham village. Father Lavin had previously bought up the corner lots of the site with the house on the corner of Dalkeith and Renfrew that had served as his rectory for years. Father Lavin purchased the rest of the block where the church and rectory now stand; six lots at the front for $500 in 1891 and, a year later, the other fourteen lots at the west side and rear for only $150. Originally he seems to have planned to put the cemetery on this land, or possibly a school. In any case, this wide expanse ensured the church building would stand proudly apart on extensive grounds, framed against its beautiful little grove to the rear.

The Plan

St. Peter Celestine strikes anyone familiar with the religious architecture of the Ottawa Valley as being from a quite different tradition. Most Catholic churches built in the Valley in the last century were in the Gothic-revival style reminiscent of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe. They are characterized by long, high naves lighted by tall pointed windows. St. John the Baptist in Perth is probably the finest local example of this style. By contrast, Pakenham is in the Classic style with round arches and smaller windows. Interior decoration is more important than the windows in this style, which accounts for the elaborate painting of the inside of St. Peter Celestine.

Why is our church so different from others in the area? The reason is probably that the building was designed by architects Roy & Gauthier of Montreal who had designed many churches all over Quebec in the preceding decade. In fact, St. Peter’s would look right at home in Quebec, whereas it is an unusual design for Eastern Ontario. Roy & Gauthier designs always incorporated a feature set at 45 degrees – in this case the Tower.

Architects Roy & Gauthier sent a preliminary submission to Father Lavin as early as 1889 and he discussed the final plans with them in July 1890. After the purchase of the site, the architects provided the final exterior plans and lists of materials required. These are impressive: 363 cords of cut stone, forty of rough stone for the foundations and four hundred yards of sand are a few of the elements mentioned.

In November, 1891, Father Lavin signed with Mr. L. Joseph Fauteux of Montreal for the construction of the church; Mr. Fauteux had built many churches in Montreal and area. Father Lavin paid out the first monies for construction in February, 1892; the first carload of cut stone arrived at Pakenham station from the Montreal Road quarries in April and the digging of the cellar began as soon as the ground thawed that year, so that laying of the foundation could begin in late May. James Arthur Nugent drew the first wagon load of stone to the church site.

St. Peter Celestine is in the Classic style traditional in the southern countries of Europe. The building is in the form of a cross, as is usual. The body of the church, the nave, is the base of the cross. Its arms are the two transepts where the side altars stand and the top of the cross is the sanctuary. The building, standing on foundation walls five feet thick, is one hundred and twenty six feet long and fifty feet wide. The ridgepole of the church is at sixty-two feet above the church floor while the cross on top of the tower is one hundred and thirty-eight feet above ground level.

Construction of the Church in progress, July, 1892 just after the laying of the cornerstone.

Contractor Fauteux brought with him his “clear-headed foreman, Mr. Dufresne” and a gang of experienced church-builders totalling 34 men. Local workers were hired through the summer and winter of 1892 and on into the summer of 1893 when the church was near enough finished to be used. Contractor Fauteux subcontracted the roofing to J.D. Lee of Arnprior, whose workman, John Knox, installed the galvanized iron. It is highly unlikely that this is the same John Knox that founded Presbyterianism in Scotland. Other local contractors built the chimneys and porches, while a well-known Montreal artist, Mr. Edouard Meloche, built and painted the elaborate pulpit and altars.

Laying the Cornerstone, July 31, 1892

The foundation of the new church was a very special event in a village parish of a century ago. The occasion obviously called for a high degree of ceremony, as the following excerpt from the Almonte Gazette indicates:

Sunday, July 31, 1892 will long be remembered by the Roman Catholics of this section of the country. It was on that day that His Grace Archbishop Duhamel of Ottawa laid the cornerstone of the beautiful Roman Catholic Church now in the course of erection. On Saturday evening, His Grace arrived here by the 5:30 train, accompanied by Very Reverend Canon Mitchell, Buckingham; Rev. W. Dequerre, the Archbishop’s Secretary; Rev. Father Champagne, Gatineau Point; Rev. Kiernan, Quyon; and were met here by Rev. Chaine, Arnprior; Rev. Devine, Osceola; Rev. Ryan, Mount St. Patrick and Rev. D. Lavin, P.P. of Pakenham. The members of the congregation turned out in force to meet their Bishop and to escort him to Father Lavin’s residence, where he was guest during his stay. On Sunday morning, the temperature was much more pleasant than it had been all the previous week. Well filled carriages of all descriptions fitted with well dressed people were seen in all directions wending their way towards Pakenham. Hotel yards and stables were filled to overflowing as were the commons and vacant lots.

At 5:00 a.m. Mass was celebrated by Father Lavin; at 7:00 a. m. His Grace celebrated Mass and a Solemn High Mass was sung by Father Chaine at 10 o’clock. Miss M. Harvey and her choir sung numerous hymns. At the conclusion of the service in the old church, a procession was formed, headed by the altar boys bearing both the silver and golden crucifix and tapers; 2nd, the choir in double file; 3rd, the ladies; 4th, His Grace and the clergy and last the gentlemen, in double file. His Grace was dressed in the full vestments of his office. Rev. Dequerre, the Archbishop’s secretary was M.C.; Canon Mitchell was deacon and Father Keirnan, sub-deacon at the ceremony of the laying of the stone. A substantial gallery encircled the inner walls while the basement had been cleared leaving room for 2 to 3 thousand people to see the ceremonies preparatory to the laying of the stone, and to hear His Grace’s sermon after the stone had been laid. Except for the laying of the stone, all the ceremonies took place on the ground floor, where, surrounded with evergreens decked with white roses, a pulpit and altar had been erected. From every scaffold and pole of the building waved a banner of Great Britain and young Canada’s infant flag. In the rear of the building was a platform where His Grace and the clergy took their seats. The ceremony then began. Many prayers were offered by the Archbishop. The choir sang the Litany of the Saints and Veni Creator Spiritus. At the appointed time, the Archbishop and clergy moved to the cornerstone, which is placed to the left of the main entrance of the church. Here he was presented by the contractor with a solid silver trowel bearing the inscription: “Presented to His Grace, J. T. Duhamel, D.D., Archbishop of Ottawa, by L.J. Fauteux, contractor. Used in laying the cornerstone of the Pakenham Roman Catholic Church, July 31, 1892”. The casket, which had already been prepared and hermetically sealed, contained the records of the parish, the contractor, etc and copies of the Catholic record, United Canada, Almonte Gazette, Arnprior Chronicle and Renfrew Journal. The cavity in the stone was in the form of an L and after His Grace had spread the mortar and declared the stone well and truly laid, holy water was sprinkled on it. Returning to the altar, the Litany of the Saints was intoned. The circuit of the foundation was then made by the clergy, His Grace blessing the walls of the building during the circuit. Prayers and psalms assigned to such occasions were recited, after which His Grace gave the sermon. He took for his text the 16th Chapter of St. Matthew, 18th and 19th verses, from which he preached a lengthy, able and eloquent sermon. He pronounced Pakenham parish the most liberal of the Diocese. At the conclusion of the sermon, the Archbishop granted the episcopal benediction to all present after which he invited all to go forward and strike the stone, reminding them that at the same time they would be expected to contribute something. The collection was evidently a liberal one as hardly a person passed that stone without striking it and depositing cash in the basket. The collection amounted to $1,003. Thus ended the ceremony. The hour was 1 p.m. The multitudes were then in humour for their dinner but the hotels of the place were unable to meet the demands, so great was the crush. It was a case of the first calling being the first served; those who were late had to be content with half a meal or none at all. The crowds then returned to their homes, not a single hitch having occurred in anyway throughout the proceedings. The 5:00 train steamed westward from Pakenham at 5:35 carrying with it the last of the visitors to the ceremony of the LAYING OF THE CORNERSTONE.

Archbishop Duhamel placed the construction of St. Peter Celestine under the special protection of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Ed Meloche of Montreal donated money to buy a statue of the Sacred Heart and Father Lavin bought the magnificent cast-iron statue that stands over the main entrance, forty feet above ground-level. Weighing near half a ton, it was coated in gold leaf and was imported from Paris, France for its installation in June of 1893. In October of the same year the bell and cross were removed from the old church on Victoria Street and installed in the new building.

Older parishioners must have felt quite mixed in their feelings, to leave the old wooden church in the valley for the new stone building on the hill. The old church was erected by people who had fled the terrible Irish famine only half a dozen years before its construction. Men and women knelt in its pews who had seen the wild Laird of McNab stalking through the muddy streets of Pakenham at the head of his gang of henchmen, and who had seen the night sky red with the fires of burning churches and halls. Now the elegant new church raised its spire as a symbol of a new, more settled life for the people and parish of Pakenham.

Finishing the Church

Father Lavin took no rest once the church was fit to use. The good priest and his parishioners continued to lavish gifts on the new church in a remarkable way. Father Lavin purchased the two cast-iron angel fonts who continue to dispense holy water at the door of the church. At the same period parishioners and ex-parishioners donated the Stations of the Cross. Father Lavin wanted these built directly into the walls of the church but the architects advised strongly against it due to the probability of frost damage passing through the walls in winter. As a result, Father Lavin bought the massive gold frames we see today. The Stations were originally painted in brilliant colours but these became chipped and faded by the 1960’s so the original paint was covered in monochromatic brown and white. This has been replaced by brilliant colours in the recent restoration

As you walk around the church and look at the Stations, you are looking at the individual donations of Father Lavin and certain parishioners and also of John Foley of Duluth, Minnesota, a son of the parish. Near the pulpit you can see the little organ given to Father Lavin by Michael Armand.

Work continued on the interior of the new church for another decade. Local carpenters built the existing pews out of local wood; oak, pine and tamarack. John Dolan, Owen Colton, Thomas Needham, Steven Delisle and Eugene Sullivan were carpenters who built the interior. They got their materials, virgin wood from the Old Forest, at prices from $1.50 a cord for pine up to $2.75 a cord for oak. Their handiwork can still be admired in the pews today.

The Blessing of the Church

The official transfer of the congregation from the old church to the new took place in December, 1893. Once again Archbishop Duhamel officiated along with five visiting priests, friends of Father Lavin. The Almonte Gazette reported the event:

Sunday, December 17, 1893 was a day which will be remembered by the Roman Catholics of Pakenham as a red letter day in the history of their church, as on that day His Grace Archbishop Duhamel blessed and set apart to the glory of God the magnificent new sanctuary, which they had erected. By 9 o’clock, the clouds had given way to the sun and from all parts of the Township people came driving in to attend the opening service. Their numbers were augmented by those who had come by rail the previous day. On July 31st, 1892, the cornerstone had been laid and from that date until last Saturday, the work of construction went steadily on without a single hitch or accident taken place.

On Saturday morning last, His Grace accompanied by his secretary, arrived on the 9 a.m. train and was met at the station by Rev. Lavin and a number of laity. They proceeded to the residence of Father Lavin, whose guest, the Archbishop was during his stay. At 7 a.m. Sunday, the tolling of the bell summoned worshipers for the last time to the old church where low mass was celebrated by Rev. Fathers Dowdall, Devine and other priests, after which Archbishop Duhamel also celebrated Mass, which brought the services in the old church to a close. The final service will never be forgotten by many who had so often knelt at its altar rail.

The clergy who took part in the service were Rev. Dowdall, Eganville; Rev. Devine, Osceola; Rev. Chaine, Arnprior; Rev. Kiernan, Quyon; Rev. Brunette, Ottawa and Rev. Lavin, Pakenham. At the appointed time, the Archbishop, accompanied by the clergy proceeded to the main entrance of the church outside the building, standing turned towards it. The Archbishop said the appropriate prayers and sprinkled it. The choir chanted a psalm, the clergy meantime turning towards the right. They proceeded around the exterior of the building, His Grace sprinkling the walls above and below with holy water. The service of blessing the interior was similar, after which the Archbishop repeated prayers from the 51st psalm. Throughout the service the musical part was led by Miss M. Harvey, was ably rendered by the choir. After the blessing, Rev. Devine celebrated High Mass after which Rev. Dowdall preached an eloquent sermon, for which he is noted. He informed the congregation that a debt of nearly $5,000 was still against the building, which would prevent the full consecration. His Grace then rose and thanked the congregation for their great liberality and said the Parish of Pakenham was the model one of his Diocese. The Litany of the Saints was said by the clergy, the choir responding. The Archbishop blessed the congregation and brought the morning service to a close. At 4:30 p.m. His Grace preached an eloquent sermon after which the ceremony of the Stations of the Cross was celebrated by His Grace, followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

It is the sincere prayer of all here that the reverend incumbent, Father Lavin, may live long to enjoy the beautiful church and house which has cost him so much thought and labour.

The move from the old church to the new was completed at the end of 1893. Father Lavin sold off the lots the old church occupied that same year. In 1894 the Pakenham Agricultural Society purchased the former church and moved it to the south end of the village where it continued in use as a Community Hall until the early 1960’s. The present author remembers it well, a big, drafty old building, its floor welted by a century of use.

Father Lavin completed the exterior of the church by planting trees on the property. The spruce trees around the church came as saplings from the farm of Bill Ryan in 1895. Two gentlemen named Fishendon and Delisle planted the trees while James Stanton erected a cedar fence around the church grounds, all at wages of a dollar a day.

Father Lavin postponed the interior decoration of the church for four years, waiting for the structure to finish settling. In 1897 contractor Fauteux and workmen returned to Pakenham where they re-pointed the stone and made good the interior plaster as required.

Since 1890, Father Lavin had been receiving proposals from church decorator François-Édouard Meloche (“Ed Meloche”) of Montreal, who sought the contract for St. Peter Celestine. Meloche had been in the business for fifteen years. A former employee of Meloche, Toussaint-Xénephon Renaud (“T-X Renaud”), had set up as an independent church decorator and among his first contracts was St. James Church in Eganville. Renaud’s work delighted Father Dowdall and the latter recommended Renaud very highly to Father Lavin. Renaud sought the contract for Pakenham as early as 1897, but Father Lavin waited until he was sure the building was completely settled.


Toussaint-Xénophon Renaud
Church decorator, painter
François-Édouard Meloche
Muralist, teacher, architect

As things developed, the final decoration was delayed until 1901 by the prolonged work of repairing the damage caused by the building’s settling. Mr. Renaud wrote to Father Lavin in 1897 promising to “make this church the nicest monument in Canada for a cost of $3,000 or less,” because he was dedicated entirely to God and his work. Mr. Renaud offered the services of an experienced old painter named Mr. Lorenz, a painter of murals, and he forwarded examples of his work with a view to doing the murals in the blind arcade around the altar.

Mr. Meloche was contracted to decorate the pulpit and the altars.

In 1901 Father Lavin had five men at work on the church; carpenters Pat O’Brian, Fred Stevens and Hugh Colton finished the gallery while painters Henry and TJ. Royce did the interior. T-X Renaud arrived from Montreal and set to work in March. He engaged a number of local labourers to speed the work, among them PJ. Moynihan and Eugene Sullivan. The crew finished their work in August at a cost of just over $2,800, leaving the interior substantially as we see it today.

St. Peter Celestine Church was Consecrated by Archbishop J.F. Duhamel in October of 1901. The church building is no longer “worldly” but divine. This also signifies that the Church is free from debt. One notes the small plaques depicting an encircled cross, on each pillar.

Father Lavin tried to get the name of the parish changed at this time. It had originally been St. Celestine Parish in honour of Pope Celestinus who sent Patrick to convert the pagan Irish. The name was changed to St. Peter Celestine in the 1870’s. The new patron was a medieval pope with no connection to Ireland. This displeased Father Lavin, but he could not persuade the diocesan authorities to revert to the original name, nor would they allow a change to “St. Patrick’s”.

Because of the relative obscurity of our parish’s patron saint, Father Lavin had a hard time finding a picture of the saint to serve as a model for the mural painters. In the end, the idea of having murals of St. Patrick and St. Peter Celestine in the altar arches was abandoned and Father Lavin settled upon pictures of the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension and St. Patrick. With the purchase of matching statues of St. Peter Celestine and St Patrick for mounting in the south transept, Father Lavin finally gave up on procuring a picture of the Apostle of Ireland. Instead he had painted the Annunciation we see today.


T. Carli Company of Montreal were major purveyors of religious art at the time and through the generosity of parishioners, the Carlis provided statues of St. Anthony of Padua and of St. Anne teaching the Virgin which were set up on either side of the sanctuary in 1901. Finally Father Lavin purchased the large copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta to stand in the right transept as a balance to the mass of the pulpit on the other side. (In later years this was eventually moved near the entrance to make room for a choir near the sanctuary).


The statues of St. Patrick and St. Peter Celestine occupied pedestals on the wall in the south transept until St. Patrick came down with a crash in the fifties. Afterward St. Peter Celestine was removed to the north transept and the wall pedestals were taken down, leaving the painted arches empty where the two saints had stood, although the marks of their pedestals remained clearly visible for years.

The interior of St. Peter Celestine has been painted and the windows have been designed to hold a mass of Christian symbolism that can occupy the mind for minutes or decades depending on the contemplative powers of the viewer. Starting with the watchful eye of the Trinity in the vestibule, the decorations are centered on the theme of the suffering and death of Christ. Decoration will be dealt with in a separate section of this web site.

Pakenham parish is very fortunate that the church has been maintained in its original state over a century. The building we see is nearly exactly the building consecrated by Archbishop Duhamel in 1901. All around us, churches were stripped and “modernized” during the changes following the Second Vatican Council in 1963. Mercifully, St. Peter Celestine was spared, and now offers a unique opportunity for people to see the fervent belief of our ancestors in its full artistic expression.

© 1992 (text) Terence Currie – Used with permission