My first full-length novel, All The Day Allows, was inspired by research about real-life Canadian missionaries during the early 1900s. It was a decade in the writing, and, with a major move from Collingwood to Muskoka in 2015, my protagonist’s hometown moved with me. The early versions had Marjory McAllister born and raised on Manitoulin Island, where the stark and stunning terrain felt exactly right for Marjory’s solitary nature. However, when I relocated to Muskoka, I realized that here, where much of the rugged landscape remains barely touched by civilization, is where Marjory’s life should begin. And so, Marjory McAllister was born and raised in Port Sydney, not far from my own real-life home.
The Founding of The Sudan Interior Mission and Its Canadian Connection
Ay-yi-yi—what to put in, what to leave out? The writer’s perpetual dilemma! With a decade of research behind this story, I want to include bits that most closely correspond to Marjory McAllister’s life and times. (Yes, I know I made her up 😊). But there’s so much cool history about the Muskoka tie-in with the story I’ve written, and it takes on a whole new meaning now that I live so close to where much of the genuine history occurred.
Here’s what we’ll do. I will tell you more about origins of the Sudan Interior Mission, in detail, in subsequent posts, but for now, here’s the condensed version:
In November, 1893, Walter Gowans, Thomas Kent and Rowland Bingham set out from the Liverpool docks in England aboard a ship bound for Lagos on the west coast of Africa. None had ever been to the “dark continent”, as it was called, before, but their hearts told them they were destined to carry Christianity to a vast stretch of sub-Saharan Africa that Europeans of the time called the Sudan. The three young men, the eldest of whom, Walter, was twenty-five, the youngest, Rowland, only twenty, were steeped in the evangelist tradition. Their vision was to convert, from amongst a population of 90 million people of the Sudan, all they could reach, to Christianity. Despite months of petitions to nearly every mission organization in England, they decided to set out with the meagre donations they had received from like-minded Christians eager to see their enterprise succeed.
All three men contracted malaria within months, and though Kent and Gowans had pushed a rather impressive distance into the interior, both had died of malaria, scarcely a year since landing in Lagos. Only Rowland Bingham survived, but with his partners in the enterprise both gone, he returned, defeated, to Canada.
Oh—I almost forgot—the Canadian connection. Though Bingham was born in Sussex, UK he emigrated to Canada when he was eighteen. Two years later he met Walter Gowans mother, a Canadian-Scot, who prevailed upon him to join her son in his crusade to evangelize the Sudan.
Ah well…the plans of mice and men. Or—were these the plans of God? The three founders of the Sudan Interior Mission certainly believed they were risking their lives to fulfill God’s plan. And it would not be long before the tenacious Bingham returned to Lagos to try again.
Let’s segue for a bit from the actual history to return to our friends Marjory, Annie and Mr. Harcourt. Remember Harcourt’s comment in Episode 2 about missionaries’ tales of “high adventure”? Annie thought he was overstating the case, but I have to disagree. In fact, those extraordinary stories continually drew me in deeper to the research—and yep, held me captive for over a decade.
But imagine the effect of those stories on young, naïve men and women growing up in a climate of Christian goodwill, but lacking opportunity to break away from mundane, small-town life. While most of them were genuinely devoted to their faith, our Marjory was not alone in her pursuit of missionary life for lack of any alternative. And, let’s be honest, if she’d known what it lay ahead—ah, but I get ahead of our story!
Canadian Keswick Conference Centre, Port Carling
In Episode One, you were given a brief introduction to Canadian Keswick Centre, Port Carling, Muskoka. There’s SO much to this little thread of the story!
In a biography of the life and work of Reverend Rowland Bingham, author J. H. Hunter describes travelling with Bingham in 1922 to attend a Christian conference in England. The English Keswick Conference was founded at Oxford, UK in 1875 by “earnest Christian men, conscious of a deep lack in their own lives of victory over sin…met together with others of like mind.” The annual conference was ultimately established in a small town called Keswick, in England’s beautiful Lake District.
For many years, Reverend Bingham joined with others to try to establish a similar conference in Canada, without success. Two years after attending the English Keswick conference, Bingham applied his unassailable belief that such a Canadian gathering was necessary, and called believers from all denominations to a meeting held at Elgin House, a summer resort established on Lake Joseph in Muskoka, in 1885. While Elgin House was a resort that catered to people “with strong religious beliefs”, it was also luxurious, certainly by missionary standards. A year later the gathering was held at nearby Port Sandfield, but again, the accommodations didn’t feel right.
Bingham was convinced of the need to create a new gathering place where Christians could meet, study, share Christian fellowship and enjoy modest respite from their labours. Muskoka, with its vast natural beauty, seemed the obvious place to establish such a conference centre.
A Large Tract of Land and an Old Hotel
In 1926, Bingham discovered “a large tract of more than 130 acres, and…upon it an old hotel. A friend undertook to loan the purchase price, and in 1926 our tent was pitched upon this site and the first assembly held there.” Bingham identified a two-fold purpose: the deepening of one’s spiritual life and faith in Jesus Christ; and, the expansion of the missionary cause. He also anticipated a time when Canadian Keswick would be used as a training centre for missionary candidates.
Before long, additional funds were donated to build a chapel and additional accommodation for visitors. One of the cornerstones of Bingham’s philosophy for Canadian Keswick, and, in fact, for all of his endeavours, including SIM, was that all Christians were welcome, from “every denomination and many professing no denominational affiliation.”
SIM members often still referred Canadian Keswick as “Ferndale”, from its original days as Ferndale House, a tourist resort. In Bingham’s biography, Hunter writes:
“The summer of 1942 was spent at Canadian Keswick. The days were warm and the divine Artist had clothed Muskoka in garments of supernal loveliness. Ferndale was an oasis of peace in the midst of a strife-torn world. It was here Dr. Bingham loved to be. Next to the S. I. M., Ferndale was dearer to his heart than aught else. He had an enlarged vision for it that comprehended a grade school for missionaries’ children and a round of activities for the whole year, including a winter Keswick Conference. It was to Ferndale he always thought to retire if God ever so permitted and to find there a peaceful habitation, the sure dwelling and quiet resting place the prophet speaks of.
“…that was to be the last summer his earthly eyes would look upon the lovely scene so dear to his heart….the old woods that seemed to lift their leafy branches in prayer, Lake Rosseau in its varied moods and the wind that rustled the little leaves in the white birches…He could never understand how anyone could look abroad upon the beautiful world at Ferndale and not feel an overpowering impulse to worship God.”
Unfortunately, many of Bingham’s plans for Canadian Keswick and SIM had to be brought to fruition by others, while many of his dreams fell away. Bingham suddenly fell ill on December 4, 1942, slipped into a coma and died, at his Toronto home, surrounded by friends and family. He was 70 years old.
Letters home: Summer Camp at Canadian Keswick
Besides being a centre for Christian study and training, the Canadian Keswick Conference Centre, affectionately referred to as CKC, was a treasure trove of fond memories.
A letter from Walter Rice to his mother, dated 1929, which makes Walter eighteen years old. It will be his last summer before starting medical school. Walter graduated with a medical degree from University of Toronto in 1938. Amongst his many achievements, after serving in the Canadian military in WWII, he held positions at Southwestern Medical School, Dallas and St. Louis University, was assistant professor of pathology at Medical College of Georgia, and held numerous senior positions at University of Michigan Medical Center and Association of American Medical Colleges. He was also Commodore of South Atlantic Yacht Racing Association and an amateur painter.
The Edward and Annie Rice Family
Walter Gowans Rice was the eldest of three sons born to Annie and Edward Rice. Walter and his brothers, Francis (Frank) and Wilbur were the first children to reside, without their parents, at what became the first Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children. Located at 637 Hurontario Street, Collingwood, the 21-room house on four acres had been acquired by Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Stephenson, who had sold their farm in Manitoba to move east and set up a home for missionaries needing rest and renewal. As things turned out, around 1921, Rev. Rowland Bingham identified a more pressing need—children needed loving adults to care for them in Canada, while their missionary parents were serving in dangerous environments overseas. It would be four more years before Bingham formally established a home for missionaries’ children, naming it in honour of his lost friend and SIM co-founder, Walter Gowans.
Walter Rice was born in Nigeria in 1911 while Ed and Annie were both serving there as SIM missionaries. His brother Benjamin Francis (Frank) was born in Toronto in 1913; their youngest brother, Wilber was also born in Nigeria, in 1918. Living in Collingwood with the Stephensons was not Francis Rice’s first separation from his parents. When he was a year-and-a-half old he was left with family friends in Saskatchewan, when his parents returned to Nigeria with Walter. It is unclear why he stayed back, but he was not reunited with them until their next furlough, when he was six.
As the Rices prepared to return to Africa around 1921-22, their three sons were left in Collingwood in the care of the Stephensons. When the Stephensons retired in 1924, Miss Kaercher, employed there since 1922, briefly took over the considerable duties of the home, now housing over a dozen children, until Mr. and Mrs. Stock were hired.
Children of the first Gowans Home, 637 Hurontario St., Collingwood, July 1922. Walter Rice is the tallest boy, his brother Francis is on his left (centre of photo) and youngest brother Wilber is far right. Francis recalled there were 12 children at Gowans Home by Christmas 1922, including the Playfairs, the Merriweathers, the Langs, the Halls, Paul Craig and possibly the Titcombes.
Francis writing to his parents, 1923, when Francis was ten years old. In adult life he was called Frank, but as a boy he was still Francis. Delightful the way he always included his surname in signing off to his parents. After graduating from Toronto Bible College and McMaster University, Frank became a highly-respected orator and minister in the Baptist Church, serving in numerous executive roles, including President of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec.
Annie wrote to Rev. Bingham in 1924, before the establishment of Canadian Keswick in Port Carling. She mentions staying at Elgin House, and her planned visits to Bracebridge and Port Carling, and also mentions deputations, a principal avenue of fundraising on behalf of SIM. On page 3 she mentions Miss Kaercher awaiting the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Stock to assist with managing the Gowans Home.
By 1925 Annie Rice had returned to Canada to recover from poor health, and her sons resumed living with her. Annie’s health, compromised after illness during her service in Nigeria, continued to be poor throughout her life.
Canadian Keswick Girls’ and Boys’ Camps
While many of the children attending camp at Canadian Keswick were residents at Gowans Home, CKC welcomed all members of the SIM family. Esther (Collins) McGibbon shared warm recollections in a newsletter article in 2000:
“The highlight of our year came in the summer when we went by bus to Muskoka, to Canadian Keswick Girls’ Camp. The Canadian Keswick Conference and the Girls’ and Boys’ camps had been another of Dr. Bingham’s projects. I can remember standing on the veranda at the Gowans Home, surrounded by bundles of bedding (no sleeping bags in those days!), waiting oh-so-impatiently for the bus. At camp we learned to swim and boat and to explore the natural world. But I think the most important thing Camp did for us girls was to provide us with wonderful counselors and instructors and a superlative camp director in Mrs. Mildred Chenault, who later went as an SIM missionary to Ethiopia.
“Each Sunday during the year we wrote a letter to our parents and told them of the week’s happenings. The children who were too young to write letters had their messages recorded for them. Our parents regularly replied to our letters. They told us of their life, their work, the land with its interesting flora and fauna, the people of their adopted country. I still have the letters written to me by my mother before she died at the age of thirty-nine, when I was six years old. She is buried in Nigeria.”
Gerald Hunt, whose parents served at Egbe Station in Nigeria, had this to share:
“In some ways missionaries’ kids have a rough time, but there are many compensations…One of the reasons we think of them as “golden days” is because of the closeness and camaraderie we children felt to each other—and still do. I have kept in touch with several of the girls who were at the Home with me, and they are family, almost as much as my sisters.”