Methodist Church Minister came to Combermere from England In 1882

Rev. Alfred Alexander Radley, D.D. was born October 27, 1857 at 34 Wood St., Cheapside, London, England to Alexander Radley and Annie Proudfoot. He had two brothers and one sister and lost his mother at age eight and then went to live with his grandfather at Tottenham, England.

At an early age when getting his education, he became very religious and at 18 years of age on February 16, 1875 commenced his path in the Ministry getting his training in theology by Rev. Dr. Applebee who was Superintendent Minister of University Road Circuit and Professor of Theology in the Belfast Methodist College. After he obtained his theology training, he happened to see a paragraph in the Methodist Times saying that ministers were needed in Canada and New Zealand and that certain ministers were in England looking for young men for that work. He was advised to communicate with Rev. H.F. Bland of Pembroke, Ontario which he did, and received an early reply asking Alfred to forward a resume. The response from Bland was “come out on the first boat”. Within two months of the first contact, Alfred made the decision to come to Canada.

On November 17, 1882, Alfred boarded the old ship “Polynesian” of the Allan Line from England to Canada. This is part of his story, recorded in an autobiography written in 1926 just after he retired from the ministry. It is story of his ministerial duties in the Wendish Methodist parish of Combermere.

“I came second cabin (class) but the accommodation in those days was not as good as even third class on ordinary boats today. Our cabin contained twelve bunks around three sides, with the dining table down the centre. Some of the passengers were seasick all the way and scarcely ever left their berths but lay watching the rest of us enjoy our meals. I was sick for the first two days but after that revelled in the motion of the boat and watched with great interest at the mighty waves as they washed the deck now and again. The weather was stormy all the voyage, it being about the worst time of the year for crossing. We were just nine days on the trip and sailed into the harbour of Halifax on the morning of November 26th. It was good to be on terra firma once more and I spent the rest of the day at the hotel, cleaning up and waiting for the train that was to take me West, over more than eight hundred miles I had yet to journey.”

“At six o’clock in the evening, I boarded the train for Quebec. It was the old Intercolonial Railway, poorly equipped and very slow. It was my first experience of an all night journey. There were no sleeping berths, the seats were wooden without cushions, very uncomfortable. We were twenty-eight hours making the trip and arrived at the old city long after dark. I shall not soon forget the utter strangeness of everything. The rather poor hotel accommodation, the prevalence of the French language, and the lack of friendly faces made me realize that I was at last an exile from home and native land. I was glad to move on next morning to Montreal. Here I stayed for a day or two and had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Dr. George Douglas and Rev. Wm. I. Shaw, then establishing the Wesleyan Theological College, the sessions being held in Dominion Square Church. I will recall the remark of Dr. Douglas, “So you are from London. It’s a great place”. I replied “yes Sir, I have not seen anything like it yet”. And in his ponderous voice he exclaimed “No, nor you never will”. I took my meals at the boarding house with the students and was struck with the quantity and variety of the food served. It seemed to me almost extravagant.”

“After a day or two in Montreal, I left for Ottawa where I spent a few hours as the guest of Rev. Charles Hanson, the Pastor of the West End Church. He kindly entertained me to dinner and afterwards took me sightseeing for an hour or two. The fine parliament Buildings, since burned, the magnificent view from Major Hill Park, the beautiful Parliamentary Library and other points of interest were visited and enjoyed. All that time Mr. Hanson was in poor health and afterwards resigned from the ministry and went into business with his brothers in Montreal, who were financial brokers. Later, he went to London, England where he became immensely wealthy, was made Lord Mayor of the city of London, was knighted by the late King Edward and occupied a palatial residence in Kent”.

“In the late afternoon, I took the train for the last lap of my journey to Pembroke, where Rev. H.F.D. Bland was then stationed. I arrived there about eight o’clock p.m. and was met at the station by Mr. Bland and two sons William H. and James A. and taken right up to the parsonage at once.”

“I may pause just here to pay tribute of warm regards and admiration to this most excellent family, with whom I have had, through fifty years, and the most cordial relations. Rev. H.F. Bland was a native of Yorkshire, England, where for some years he was a successful and popular local preacher. He came to Canada as a young married man with two children and was accepted as a candidate for the ministry and soon proved himself a faithful pastor, an able preacher and a capable administrator, winning a high position in Conference and the unstinted confidence and esteem of his bretheran. Two of his sons became eminent in the ranks of the ministry, Rev. Salem G. Bland, D,D. and Rev. Charles E. Bland, D.D.”

“It was in this home that I made my first acquaintance with Canadian life and my first touch with Canadian Methodism. The kindness and sympathy of Mrs. Bland, and her almost maternal interest in the young Englishman far away from home and friends, are indelible memories. For many years I have kept in touch with one and another of the family, joining them in summer camping, visiting in their homes, associating with them in the work of the Conference, and freely exchanging views and news by correspondence. Refined, cultured, deeply thoughtful, musical, artistic, the five sons constituted a group of whom their parents were justly proud and who would attract attention in any community.”

End of first part Note; The points in the ( ) were added by the author D. Kelley


“I remained here (in Pembroke) for about ten days and at the end of that time was sent to take charge of the Combermere Mission, on the upper reaches of the Madawaska River about sixty miles south of Pembroke. I was the subject of much sympathetic comment on the part of kindly kin in the church who rather pitied the young Englishman who was going to a distant and laborious field, among a rather primitive and uncouth community and without any previous experience of the work. But to me it was the beginning of a great adventure and the romance of it thrilled me. And I never bemoaned my lot, and have never regretted the time spent in their wild country. I was thrown almost entirely on my own resources and had very little counsel or assistance from senior ministers. The nearest of these was thirty-five miles distant, and later fifty-two miles, so that they could not often visit me. The roads were difficult, traveling by buggy tedious, the journey taking a whole day to accomplish.”

“I left Pembroke by stage on Thursday afternoon and traveled as far as Eganville that day. Here I was entertained in the home of Rev. Carl Allum a man of striking character and person. Converted to God whilst still a young man, he entered the ministry and was for some years employed as a missionary among German settlers in Ontario. He became my warm friend and extended much kindness through the many years. I stayed overnight at the parsonage but left seven o’clock the following morning for my final destination. Traveling all day we arrived at Combermere at six o’clock in the evening, where I had a letter of introduction to Mr. Daniel Johnston, storekeeper, postmaster, and mill owner (now Valley Market store – proprietor Christopher Hicks). As he had to open and distribute the mail I was kept standing in the store till he was through and at liberty to take me over to his house. It seemed to me at the time a rather unfriendly sort of reception but I could not afford to stand upon my own dignity. His wife received me kindly, and daughter somewhat quizzically, and he with a mixture of piety and patronage that was amusing. But I made my home with them for the greater part of the two and a half years that I spent on the Mission and found them to be very good friends.”

“My coming had been announced and my work for the Sunday planned so that on Saturday afternoon I left for the most distant appointment on the Mission, Bell’s Rapids, twelve miles up the river. My conveyance was a rough homemade “jumper” with stakes up the back crossed with ropes, and a few sticks of wood covered with an old buffalo rug for a seat. My driver would have delighted the heart of Dickens; A man in the early sixties, with a great shock of red hair, a full beard of the same colour, a huge frame and oval face (was Richard Hare). He resembled pictures of John Bunyan. Underneath a rough exterior he carried a warm heart and we became great friends. We drove as far as Bangor, six miles, a settlement named from the Township but with no village of any kind. Here we stayed the night with the principal family in the neighborhood and received the kindest welcome. It was my privilege to become intimately acquainted with this family and their friendship remains one of the choicest memories of my ministerial life. Mr. and Mrs. Calvin W. Dafoe were people of fine Christian character and high ideals. They toiled hard and sought the best interest intellectually and religiously for their sons and daughters, and reaped their reward in seeing their family occupy honoured and successful positions in life. One in particular, John W. Dafoe, has become probably the most influential journalist in Canada. It was a great joy to receive most of the members of the family into the membership of the Church during my stay on the mission.”

“On Sunday I was taken the six miles further to Bell’s Rapids. Here I really began my ministry. It was a little red schoolhouse in which the service was held. The congregation was small, the older people almost all born in “dear ould Oireland”, simple, superstitious, ignorant, but with that religious fervour which often characterizes such. I am afraid that my sermon that day did not inspire them much but they listened respectfully. After the sermon, I went to dinner with the leading man of the place. His home was a log cabin with a lean-to kitchen. Rough deal boards comprised the furniture. The table was set for us in the front room, no tablecloth, no carving knife. The meal consisted of fried salt-pork and potatoes boiled in their skins. A blue “say grace” called for the blessing, and then the host took his fork and dug it into a potato at the same time, saying to me “Now then, help yourself. In this country everybody helps himself”. Well I did, and in a way have been doing so for many years, that is to say, this was my introduction to my work on country missions.”

“After dinner we returned to Bangor where I held service in the schoolhouse. This time the congregation was larger, more intelligent in appearance, and more appreciative. It fell to me to lead the singing and I was glad I was able to do so.”

“After service I returned to Combermere where I had the largest congregation of the day (was in the Wendish Methodist Church where the Log Cabin Crafts building is today). No doubt many of the people were there out of curiosity and it would have been interesting at least to learn their impressions. There had been no time to prepare a new sermon and I had to fall back on one I had preached in Belfast the Sunday before I left for Canada. The text had come to me whilst I was listening to the reading of the last chapter of the Book of Daniel. “go thou thy way until the end of the days”. It seemed to me like the program of all human experience, Life, Death, Resurrection, Judgment, a sufficiently wide field to cover in one discourse. And thus ended my first Sunday, Dec. 16, 1882.”

“The following morning Mr. Daniel Johnston said to me quite plainly, “There has been no Methodist minister here for six months and the Anglicans have come in and occupied the ground, so there is little use in your staying and you had better go back”. I replied I had been sent to hold the place until next Conference and would do so, which I did for two years and a half. And as showing the change of opinion I may say that within three weeks Mr. Johnston himself made a canvass and secured subscriptions to purchase for me a very fine buffalo fur coat which served me for many years amid the rigors of the Canadian winter.”

“My mission consisted of four regular appointments scattered along the Madawaska River, about twenty miles from end to end. Combermere, the only village on the course, was very prettily situated on both sides of the river, and contained perhaps two hundred people in all. But it was the first place reached by the lumbermen driving the logs down the river in the early summer, and depended on for it’s trade largely upon the lumber camps during the winter. Here I made my headquarters, occupying the parsonage (where Nels & Bernice Boehme now reside) for sleeping and studying but boarding out.”

“As for my work itself I had everything to learn, and no one with whom to take counsel. Harnessing a horse, riding horseback, driving a buggy, caring for the horse in the stable, were all new to me. I rode during the summer as much as three hundred miles a month at times. My visiting was among widely scattered families, many of them very poor and living in single-roomed log cabins. I had to prepare at least one new sermon a week besides getting up my studies in the course for probationers for the ministry. And I had to familiarize myself with the administration of the business of the church. Somehow or other with true English nonchalance I muddled through and I trust accomplished some good. Looking over the years, I see how really the Providence of God was in my life especially in one regard, for it was here that I met the young lady who became through thirty-seven years the devoted partner of my life, the mother of my family and the helpmate in my work in the church.”

“At the Conference of ’83 I was received as a candidate for the ministry and formally appointed to Combermere. At the end of my first year it was proposed in Stationing Committee to send me to Clarendon as assistant minister. But for some reason or other the people there strongly objected to having a young Englishman and I was returned to Combermere. Owing to its distance and isolation it was decided that I should be given ordination for ‘special reasons’ so that I might perform all the functions of the ministry. Accordingly, soon after Conference, I was ordained at Pembroke by Rev. William Galbraith, president of Conference, assisted by Rev. James Elliott D.D., Chairman of District, Rev. Elisha Tennant, and Rev. David Winter. But not until three years later did I obtain the standing of a minister in full connection with the Methodist Church of Canada.”

End of the second part


“Let me at this point give of my first impressions of this great new land. Fortunately I had not come here with the feeling of contempt for things ‘colonial’, too many of my fellow countrymen are apt to display. I found the people friendly and hospitable and not at all disposed to take advantage of my innocence. Their homes were open to me at any hour of the day. It might be only a one-room log cabin in the settlement, or a more pretentious house in the village, I was equally welcome. Riding horseback or driving in a sleigh were entirely new experiences but I grew adept at such, much as the Arab children are taught to swim by simply being thrown into the water and left to their own struggles to get to shore. I had to learn to split wood and build my own fires in a box-stove instead of an open grate as in England. It was the early winter when I first arrived on my Mission but I had no idea of what that meant. But I was to get accustomed to snow knee-deep on the roads, to temperatures down at times to below forty below zero, to driving many miles on the ice down the lakes facing a blinding storm, or to being storm-bound for days miles away from home. On the other hand I was to feel the exhultation of the marvelously crystal-clear atmosphere, the brilliantly blue skies of mid-winter, the fairly-like enchantment of the woods with the evergreen spruce and balsam firs loaded with snow, and the dense pine forests like great cathedral interiors solemn and stately. Two things remained as a matter of wonder and surprise. In the first place, unaccustomed as I was to wild country roads, I never got a mile out of my way during over twenty years of driving in various sections, and further I never got frost-bitten as so many are apt to be. It seems a far cry from the maze of myriad streets in the great city of London to the backwoods of Canada. But as a mere boy I had loved to explore out-of-the-way routes in the former and had acquired a sense of direction which stood useful in the latter. One little incident recurs to memory as illustrating the longing for home which every exile feels. I was riding though the woods one day in early spring when suddenly I heard overhead the raucous cry of some crows. But it was music to me, the first familiar soul I heard since I came, and I took off my hat and shouted in shear gladness. Many years afterwards I was traveling in the tram cars in Montreal and in conversation with a friend was enthusiastically describing the song of the English skylark, when a lady seated in front of me turned around, with tears in her eyes and said ’you make me lonesome’. Well, there it is, and as Scott wrote, ‘breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, this is my own native land’.”

“Returning to my account of my ministerial career I may say that after ordination I spent another year at Combermere. I have already sketched my regular Sunday work. But in addition I took a trip every fourth or fifth week to a point forty miles up the Madawaska River known as the Henderson Settlement. I may tell one such excursion. Leaving home one bright morning in October, riding horseback, I started through the seven miles stretch of brushwood. The roads were tolerably good at first bur presently I came to where some twenty or more trees had been uprooted in a recent gale and were piled across the track. To get passed them I dismounted and led my horse around them expecting to find the road further on. But it was not there, at least not clearly visible. At first I was overwhelmed, not knowing which direction to take. On close examination however I noticed where some spikes of timothy grass grew in a straight line, indicting where hay had been drawn in the winter. By following these I found my way out and gained the main highway a mile or two further on. For someone accustomed only to city life this was a rather clever performance. Ten miles farther on I arrived at Barry’s Bay and was entertained hospitably at Culbertson’s Hotel for the night. Next morning being Sunday I preached in the schoolhouse and then after dining well off moose steak, I started for the upper settlement. My way lay through eighteen miles of solid woods, with only one house on the way. The road was what is known as ‘corduroy’ that is to say built of logs laid across the road in close formation. In winter it made a good track when covered with snow, but when clear of snow was very tedious going.”

“When I arrived at the settlement I found that an error had been made in announcing the service for the afternoon instead of the evening. The people had gathered and after waiting a good while for the preacher had gone home. Having come so far I did not like to leave without holding service so we got together a good congregation on Monday evening. Next morning at eight o’clock just as I was ready to start, a fine snow was falling. It came down steadily and increased in volume so that by the time I had reached the next settlement, seven miles away, there was six inches on the ground.”

“It being near dinner time I stopped at the home of one of the settlers who received me very cordially and invited me in. There was a baby to be christened and they were glad to avail themselves of my visit for this purpose. After the ceremony I expected to proceed on my journey but the storm had so increased in violence that it was impossible for me to go and the man and his wife both urged me to stay overnight. But the house was a one-roomed cabin, perhaps twelve feet by sixteen feet. The family consisted of the husband and wife, the baby and two other small children and a grandmother. Quirey- where to put the minister? The problem was solved by hanging quilts from the ceiling between the two beds, thus inspiring a certain amount of privacy. The granny went over to the next cabin, the father and mother occupied one bed and the preacher the other. The house was very clean and tidy, the people poor but hospitable, and grateful for such spiritual ministration as I had for them. And I doubt not that the Master saw and approved their sincere kindness.”

“The storm continued all night and next morning until noon, finishing with heavy rain which froze on top of the snow leaving a crust of ice half an inch in thickness. As I was anxious to get on, the man harnessed his horses to a heavy sleigh and broke the road ahead of me to the next stopping place seven miles distant. Here I spent the night and found a settlement where no ordained minister and been for ten years. They were glad to have me hold a service among them to baptize a number of children and young people who had grown up without any religious instruction. Next morning I proceeded on my way reaching Maynooth at an early hour in the evening. I was received by the leading man in the place, a fairly well-to-do farmer of very positive religious ideas. At family worship he did not as usual invite the minister to lead the devotions but undertook the duty himself, and he made the most remarkable prayer (of a kind) that I ever listened to. Himself, his family, his cattle and horses, his farm implements, the house, land, everything was included until one could almost image a sort of auction going on between him and the almighty. However he treated me well and next morning in bright sunshine and glittering snow I journeyed along the eighteen miles toward home”

“I have dwelt rather fully on these experiences because they were all introductory to my ministerial career and taught me much self reliance, taught me to endure hardness, how to meet people on their own terms, how to adapt myself to various conditions. I used often to long for intellectual companionship, for the opportunity to use certain acquirements and for the privileges of cultured society. But I found my sympathies going out towards these people in their homely joys, their hard struggles and their effort to keep religious alive in their hearts and among their neighbours.”

“In the latter end of June 1885, I was transferred to the Nipissing Mission situated on the south shore of Nipissing Lake.”

By David Kelley
Curator, Mission House Museum & Gallery