Bethany United Church, Southport

by Leslie J. Dean, October 2018


The history of the United Church (formerly the Methodist Church) at Southport (Fox Harbour) can be traced to June 12, 1829, when the Rev. John Smithies, the Methodist missionary at Hant’s Harbour, held the first known religious service in the inner Random region in the community. He commented as follows: “I proceeded to Fox Harbour, a place where I believe, none of our missionaries [Methodist] had been before and that the people gave heed to what was spoken; may it profit them.”

This service was likely held outdoors or in a summer fishing shed or store and was held for seasonal fishermen primarily from the Hant’s Harbour area and other communities in Trinity South who fished on the north side of Trinity Bay around West Random Head early in the summer fishing season. Some of them lived in summer tilts just to the east of Southport at a location still called Lodgers Cove. Capelin arrived earlier on the north side and was the primary baitfish used in the hook and line fishery. There were no known permanent settlers resided at Fox Harbour or in the Southwest and Northwest Arms of Random Sound at the time. In the afternoon and evening of June 12, 1829, Rev. Smithies also held services at Heart’s Ease Beach where five or six Church of England families residing together with a number of seasonal fishermen. He noted that a larger number of inhabitants than he had expected to see attended both services. Gooseberry Cove and Butter Cove were not settled by this date.

The exact year in which the first Methodist Church was constructed at Fox Harbour is not known. However, it was the first church of any denomination established in the Random Region (likely over the 1855-1860 period) and was located close to the present site of Bethany United Church. It was a relatively small church with a cottage style roof. Before this date church services and marriages were conducted in private homes by visiting Methodist missionaries from Hant’s Harbour such as Reverends James England, Thomas Fox, and Paul Prestwood.  Local lay-readers such as James Dean of Fox Harbour, Scholar John Tilley of Shoal Harbour, and Hezekiah Blundell of Hickman’s Harbour by this time also held services, baptized individuals and buried the dead during this early period.

Scholar John Tilley, formerly of Hant’s Harbour, was the first layman in Newfoundland to be issued a license to marry in 1833 and he also conducted Methodist and Church of England marriages at Fox Harbour and neighbouring communities before his death at Shoal Harbour in 1871 at the age of 84 years. On August 20, 1853 he performed the marriage of Henry Baker and Emma Ivany at Fox Harbour, one of the first second-generation marriages recorded for the community. Earlier in 1852 Henry’s sister, Sarah Ann Baker, both of Thomas and Eleanor Baker, married James Brown from Spaniard’s Bay at Fox Harbour. In 1856 Rev. Thomas Fox married William Dean of Fox Harbour and Ellen Langer of Gooseberry Cove in the house of Joseph Martin (Sr) at Fox Harbour.

The first Methodist cemetery was established on Dean’s Room shortly after the community was permanently established circa 1830 by Thomas Baker (wife Eleanor Langer) who was born at Heart’s Ease Beach in 1797 and by James Dean (wife Sarah Pelly) who was born at Old Perlican in 1802. Only natural stones mark the graves of most of the more than 50 individuals interred there. The second Methodist Church cemetery was consecrated on the Fox Harbour to Gooseberry Cove road circa 1910.

The first Methodist families at Fox Harbour included Thomas Baker, James Dean, Joseph Martin, John and James Lambert, James Avery (Sr), Thomas Smith, and Thomas Pelly. The latter two individuals were natives of Hant’s Harbour and both resided at Fox Harbour for several years around the 1840-1850 period. James Avery and Joseph Martin were from Grates Cove and John and James Lambert were of Old Perlican ancestry. Another Thomas Smith and family who arrived from Bishop’s Cove via Chance Cove, Trinity Bay around 1850 was of the Church of England as was William and Elizabeth Wells who arrived from English Harbour near Trinity circa 1843.

The first resident minister assigned to the Random Methodist Circuit, which included Fox Harbour when the Circuit was established in 1871 with its headquarters at Shoal Harbour, was the Rev. William Swan. He was followed by Rev. Atkinson in 1873 who raised money in England to purchase a small steam launch to visit isolated communities on this circuit (mission).  The rapid population growth and the growth of Methodism in the region resulted in the Circuit being divided into Random North and Random South in 1878. Fox Harbour then became included in the Random South Circuit with Northern Bight (Hillview) as its headquarters. The first minister assigned to the Random South Circuit in 1878 was the Rev. Edgar Taylor. Over the 1878-1925 period 39 different ministers served this pastoral charge (circuit). Amongst them was Rev. James Lumsden who arrived from Manchester, England in 1881 and served the circuit for two years. He later wrote a book entitled The Skipper Parson: On the Bays and Barrens of Newfoundland which has several chapters on his pastoral assignment on the Random South Circuit. He found “the isolation of Random to be terrible.”

Both the new and old Bethany United Church in Southport. You can see the Christmas Seal in the background. (Photo donated by Nina Avery)

The first Methodist church at Fox Harbour was used as a school chapel after the first Methodist school was established in the community in 1875. Between 1859 and 1875 some of the Methodist children attended the Church of England school chapel at Heart’s Ease Beach. This first Methodist church was replaced in 1902 by a second gabled roof structure which was referred to as “the old new church” after it opened because it took such a long time for it to be completed. The Minister of the day, the Rev. T. B. Windross, in a letter to the Methodist Monthly Greeting in January 1902 wrote as follows:

       “The friends at Fox Harbour have placed their shoulders to the wheel at last. Helped by the Board (Methodist) a little, they have raised sufficient funds to finish the building of the “old” new church and added a porch to the original plan. This is little but is much for the place.”

This second church with some 12 pews, six to each side, could seat approximately 100 worshippers. It also served as a school chapel until circa 1913 when a separate one room school building was erected near the church and on the site of the present community hall, the former more recent two room school. A Methodist Ladies Aid Society was formed on June 12, 1912 with Julia (Price) Avery, wife of James Avery (Sr) serving as its first president.

The congregation had concluded “that it is inconvenient to keep school in a place of worship” and in February 1913 the Ladies Aid reported that it had held a sale of knitted goods and a social which raised $46 to fix up the church. This second church served the community until the present Bethany United Church was opened in 1959 and it was also used as a second United Church school classroom in the late 1950s and 1960s before it was dismantled. Bethany United Church occupies part of the footprint of its predecessor which was “hauled” a short distance to the south to accommodate the former’s construction. In January 1917, Mrs. Eliza (Caleb) Ivany, correspondence secretary for the Ladies Aid Society, wrote again to the Methodist Monthly Greeting and noted “it is seldom we see anything in the Greeting from Southport [name changed from Fox Harbour in 1913] but I may as well say we are like the tortoise in the fable of the hare and the tortoise; we keep prodding on.” In this article Mrs. Ivany extended condolences on behalf of the congregation to Mr. and Mrs. Moses Spurrell of Butter Cove on the loss of their son (Richard) of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who was killed for King and Country in France on January 4, 1917.

Sunday school superintendents over the 1910-1940 period included Julia (Price) Avery, Eliza (Langer) Ivany, and Jessie (Dalton) Dean. Local lay-readers played an active role in the life of the congregation since its inception and, in addition to James Dean, included Moses Seward, Joseph and Hezekiah Martin, Jessie (Dalton) Dean, and Walter Avery. Other lay-readers from Southwest Arm communities including James Stringer, Eleazer Robbins, Bertram King, Boyd King, and Robert Miller also led services, conducted burials, baptisms and led Methodist class meetings. Silas Avery served the community as a teacher for 37 years, as church organist for 42 years, and as Board Secretary Treasurer for 55 years.

Laying of the cornerstone of Bethany United Church, Southport, September 2, 1956

The decision to build the present Bethany United Church was taken by the congregation on April 24, 1953 under the officiating minister, Rev. Herbert Beecham. The sod turning by elders James Richard Seward and Caleb Ivany in the presence of other elders such as Josiah Avery, James Avery, Obadiah Seward and Eucleus Lambert and the congregation as a whole took place on July 4, 1956 and the cornerstone was laid on September 2, 1956. Men of the congregation assisted Chesley Drover and Jacob Smith of Hodge’s Cove in its construction by supplying lumber and free labour.

The church bell from the old church rang for the first service from the tower of Bethany United Church on September 6, 1959 when the new church was opened and consecrated in a special ceremony presided over by the minister, Rev. Roy Andrews. Those United Church dignitaries in attendance included Rev. A. S. Butt, Superintendent of Missions of the United Church of Canada; Rev. Lester Burry, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Conference; the Rev. Wilfred Vardy, a grandson of George Vardy, the first Church of England lay-reader and teacher at Heart’s Ease Beach, and Chair of the Bonavista Presbytery of the United Church; and the Rev. L. H. Perry of the Clarenville United Church Pastoral Charge. Its mortgage was burnt in a special ceremony on July 5, 1964, just five years after being consecrated.

Many fund-raising events were undertaken to fund Bethany United Church. Most, including socials and parcel post sales, were led by the Ladies Aid Society. Congregational fishermen also contributed several days of their catch towards its cost. Eucleus Lambert also raised a significant contribution through door to door givings throughout Random.

Bethany United Church, Southport, 2014 (Photo credit: Wanda Garrett)

July 12, 2019 will mark the 190th anniversary of the first recorded Methodist church service held at Southport (Fox Harbour) and in the Random Region by the Rev. John Smithies. He was a native of Yorkshire, England and was just 27 years of age at the time of his visit to Fox Harbour and Heart’s Ease Beach and served in Newfoundland over the 1828-1837 period. He was described as a very progressive Methodist missionary and was assigned to Australia in 1839 where he spent the rest of his life in the colony of Swan River and Tasmania. He married his English fiancée in Newfoundland in 1832 and they had four children prior to their arrival in Australia where he died in 1872. Many of his descendants still reside there.