St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Parish, one of the oldest parishes of the Gatineau-Hull Diocese, celebrated its 150th anniversary on October 15, 1995.
For some time prior to 1845, the scattered Catholic community of Chelsea was held together as a mission, served from the nearby parish of Aylmer, Québec. In part, the congregation was composed of settlers from Ireland who pioneered in the rough and heavily wooded land surrounding Chelsea, Old Chelsea, Kingsmere, and Meach Lake.
The first missionary to serve the community on a regular basis was Rev. Father Desautels, parish priest of Aylmer. On his trips between Aylmer and Chelsea, he was accompanied by Jeremiah Blake, an Aylmer resident, who assisted as acolyte and who directed the first choir after the Parish of St. Stephen’s had been established.
It was on October 15, 1845, that St. Stephen’s was established as a separate entity with Rev. James Hughes being appointed as the first parish priest. Through his efforts a fairly large wooden church was soon erected as well as a presbytery that remained in use for almost 50 years. It was during this stay that a 100-acre parcel of land was given as a free gift to St. Stephen’s by Lennox Brigham, a member of the Church of English. Father Hughes’ pastorate extended over 14 years, and his death in March 1859 was an occasion for sincere grief. He was buried under the main altar of the church at Old Chelsea.
Rev. James Brown’s pastorate which extended for eight years (1880 to 1888) was signalized by a number of events important to the life of the parish. It was through his perseverance that the present stone church was completed, on exactly the same site as the previous building. He also promoted and edited a small magazine, “The Voice”, and was successful in securing donations of the complete Stations of the Cross from a number of young families in the parish.
It was during Rev. J. C. Poulin’s pastorate from 1894 to 1901 that the present brick presbytery was built on the site of the original building erected 50 years before.
During the pastorate of Rev. John T. McNally, which extended from January 1906 to 1911, a number of major improvements to the church were accomplished. All the interior walls and ceilings were artistically decorated after the style of many old European Catholic shrines, and stained-glass windows were installed.
Rev. John R. Smith was appointed pastor in April 1937 and during his 10-year tenure was responsible for an important change in the academic aspect of parish life. Through his foresight and effort, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peterborough, Ontario, took charge of the school in Old Chelsea, a radical improvement over the conditions of earlier years.
Besides the school at Old Chelsea, there were parochial schools at Hollow Glen, Ironside, and Farm Point. All lower grades and two years of high school were taught to a total of 175 pupils in 1945. The School Commissioners that year included Father Smith as chairperson and Richard Mulvihill, Christopher Hendley, Leo Dunlop, Philip Hendrick, with Edmund Ryan as secretary. This was 100 years after St. Stephen’s was formed.
In 1939 a new sacristy was built and blessed by Most Ref. J. Guillaume Forbes, Archbishop of Ottawa, and Most Rev. John C. Cody, Bishop of Victoria.
During Rev. Martin J. Mooney’s pastorate (1947-1959) the Shrine of Our Lady of the Gatineau was erected and was blessed by the Most Rev. Alexander Vachon, Archbishop of Ottawa. He was also instrumental in establishing a Catholic Women’s League for the parish in 1954 as well as having the old pews replaced with oak benches.
It was during Rev. Francis Brennan’s pastorate that the new Fabrique Act of Québec came into effect, requiring the election of six wardens (previously three). The first woman warden (Irene Boland) was elected during his term which spanned a period of twenty years (1959-1978).
During Rev. Maurice Theoret’s pastorate (1978-1981), celebration of a Sunday French Mass was introduced on a trial basis and has continued through today. After his three-year stay, Rev. Theoret was replaced by Rev. Normand Verrier who was pastor for the next two years.
In 1983 Rev. André Gauvreau was appointed pastor, while continuing to be pastor for several months at Ste-Rose-de-Lima, Gatineau. That year he was instrumental in establishing an annual summer festival as a fund-raiser. (It had become necessary to hold Saturday and Sunday Masses in the sacristy during the winter to reduce the high heating fuel costs in the main church.) In the same year, the first lay President of St. Stephen’s Fabrique (Richard Thompson) was appointed by Most Rev. Roger Ebacher, Archbishop of Gatineau-Hull. During Rev. Gauvreau’s pastorate, St. Elizabeth’s Parish in Cantley became part of his responsibility. Also his dream of floodlighting the front of St. Stephen’s was completed making the steeple a visible landmark from Highway 5.
On. Jan. 1, 1992 Rev. Gérald J. Croteau was appointed pastor and parish priest…
See also a related article by Karen J. Watson from the Gatineau Valley Historical Society: “The Stone Church of St. Stephen“.