By Andrew Hind
MUSKOKA LIFE magazine, April 2021
Used with permission.
The village of Germania is home to one of the most charming churches in Muskoka, a building of rustic beauty and historic significance. Huddled in a clearing amidst the forests of Draper Township, Germania Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church represents generations of strong devotion to God. The pioneer settlement it calls home may have failed, but the church itself endures. That’s part of the majesty of Germania Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church.
My introduction to this remarkable building came about 15 years ago, courtesy of the late Velda Gilbert. A frail but still spirited 90-something at the time, she guided me across the road from her home and up the creaking stairs of the church. Though her blue eyes were failing, she still saw the church clearly – at least as it once was, in her youth.
“The church used by be full every Sunday. It was a very important part of our lives,” she explained as we walked inside. And, with much pride, she added, “my grandfather played an important role in its creation.”
Germania was founded in the early 1870s, mostly by settlers of German ancestry. In 1875, even as the farmers were still struggling to tame the land, the first steps towards establishing a church were made. A board of trustees was established, comprising the three most prominent names in the community: George Gilbert, Herman Weissmuller, and Nikolaus Wettlaufer. It fell to them to organize the building efforts, raise the necessary funds, and acquire land.
In most 19th century communities, local landholders donated small parcels of land, generally half an acre or so, upon which to build houses of worship. Germania was no different. It was William Gilbert – Velda’s grandfather – who stepped forward to sign over a lot, and as a result the church became known unofficially as ‘Gilbert Lutheran Church’ in his honour.
Herman Weissmuller did his part by donating the necessary lumber from his sawmill. Construction began in 1876, and by the next year the church was ready for services. Building the church was a community affair, but so too was maintaining it; all parishioners owning farmland were required to supply a quarter cord of wood per year for heating.
To provide a home for the preacher, a parsonage was constructed opposite the church on the northwest corner of the village intersection. This meant that for a time the community enjoyed the presence of a resident priest, a luxury few hamlets could claim. After the building burned down sometime around 1885, Germania was forced to share its preacher with nearby Gravenhurst. Residents were required to provide him accommodations when he was tending to affairs in the village, as well as transportation to and from Gravenhurst.
In keeping with the community’s ethnic composition, services were initially held in both English and German. This continued until nearly the turn of the century, by which time a new generation of Canadian-born and fluently English-speaking residents began to take over communal affairs and the ethnic makeup was changed when a number of non-German families arrived to add diversity to the community. Henceforth, services were held in English.
The early days of the 20th century was arguably the heyday of the Germania Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church. Attendance was at a peak, new floors were laid throughout in 1900, and Charlie Speicher, a gifted local musician, donated a ‘mouse-proof’ organ worth $40. The church was the beating heart of the community, and it showed in the attention parishioners lavished upon it even while the substandard soil was providing little in the way of profitable harvests.
Sadly, this glory period did not last long. Germania dwindled as the 20th century progressed and disillusioned farmers abandoning their lands for fresh opportunities elsewhere and, as it did, the church naturally began to suffer for lack of resources and attention. Indeed, there is a very good chance it would have shared the fate of the nearby schoolhouse, which recently collapsed under the weight of snow load and the years of neglect, if not for the tireless devotion of one man.
Godfrey Clark grew up on a farm eight miles away in Housey’s Rapids, and as a child in the 1950s he and his family attended the church as regularly as services allowed – at the time, services in Germania were held once a month, with the minister coming up from Toronto. His mother, Jessie Speicher, was proud of her family’s deep ties to the church and the fact her uncle had donated the organ. “My mother was a faithful woman and the church was important to her,” explains Cook from his Gravenhurst home. “My mother was a mainstay of the church and looked after things for many years.”
When Cook retired to Muskoka after a 30-year absence, care for the church was put into his hands. It seemed natural that the responsibility passed from mother to son. Cook handles the finances, oversees maintenance, and does many repairs himself, including recently repairing the foundation. Even though only a dozen or so attend services at the church Cook faithfully devotes his time to its preservation.
“Caring for the church is a way of honouring my mother,” he says, emotion tingeing his voice. “I’m deeply rooted in religion, and my roots are bound to this church.”
It’s easy to feel its pull. The dull grey siding that once covered the church’s exterior walls has been removed to reveal the sturdy timber of its original construction, the logs seeming to symbolize the strength and indomitable spirit of those who settled this difficult landscape. Germania Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church is one of the few examples of non-veneered churches in Muskoka, thereby offering a unique insight into pioneer construction.
The special delight of the church is in the interior. It hasn’t been altered much over the year and breathes the atmosphere of a bygone era. The pews, altar, baptismal font, and oil lamps are all original, and the century-old organ is still there. Heating is provided solely by an ancient wood stove. The original land-grant, issued Feb. 1, 1875, hangs encased in glass from the wall.
The cemetery adjacent to the building gives silent testimony of the many German families that once populated this part Reading the inscriptions on the stones, one begins to comprehend how tight knit the community would have been. Neighbours weren’t just friends, they were quite literally family, either through blood or marriage. Velda led me among the fading and cracked tombstones that day, and despite failing eyesight she was able to point out by memory the graves of friends and relatives who have left her.
One of the stones, the tallest in the cemetery, is a cross-shaped memorial to Adam and Wilhelmina Dietz. Velda shared that the Dietzes were well-respected farmers who came to Germania in the 1890s. She then raised one of her rail-thin hands, crooked a finger, and beckoned me to follow. We walked to the far rear of the cemetery, Velda leaning on my arm as the ground grew uneven and we began to push our way through foliage. Just outside the cemetery boundaries she pointed, guiding my eyes to a small grave marker partly obscured by leaves and sinking into the ground. This was a grave the parishioners had wanted to forget about.
The grave belonged to Katherine Dietz, daughter of Adam and Wilhelmina. Hers is a tragic story. Two years after her mother died in 1901, the 29-year-old became pregnant out of wedlock. Her courter abandoned her, her father was ashamed of her, and the community shunned her. Despondent and alone, she ended her misery by walking in Weissmuller Lake, allowing the weight of her sodden dress to drag her to the bottom. Guilty now of two transgressions against the morals of the day – pregnancy before marriage and suicide – Katherine was buried outside the cemetery property, on unconsecrated ground.
I recall commenting to Velda that Katherine was ostracised in death as in life. The palpable sadness fell over Velda. She simply shrugged her thin shoulders. She had no words.
Were she still alive today, Velda would undoubtedly be happy to hear that services are still held in her beloved church, once per month in July and August, conducted by the clergy of St. David Anglican-Lutheran Church in Orillia.
Germania never really lived up to the heady expectations of its eager settlers. The farms have given way to forest, the smithy and mill have long since disappeared, the settlers moved on. And yet, despite the tragedy that is Germania, the community’s church continues to triumph. It is the only surviving pioneer-era Lutheran church in Muskoka.
“The church is special both spiritually and historically – it’s almost 150 years old, after all,” says Cook. “It’s close to me, so as long as I’m alive and able, I’ll keep it going.”
He pauses, then adds, “but what’ll happen when I’m gone?”
It’s a question that hangs heavily in the air, both for Godfrey and all those souls at rest in the cemetery.