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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Chapel: The deaths of Leslie Brown and Alf McLarnon

One of my first jobs when I arrived on the island in 1976 was cleaning up the area behind the chapel.

I was one of about half a dozen teenagers who made up the operations crew. Burton Tutt (Boryen) was our counsellor.

At that time operations was designed to be much like a senior's cabin group. We were too old to be campers, but young enough still to be an ad hoc cabin group.

The idea was that Burton would teach us life skills like cleaning toilets, cutting grass, cabin window and screen repair and making garbage runs to Kenora. We also learned the difference between flat head, Robertson and Phillips screwdrivers.

We were also responsible for composting organic kitchen waste from the dining hall. We dumped it the 8-holer, which at that time was still standing in the bush next to the septic field, near the camp fire circle.

We worked July and August, including girl's camp, and at the end each of us was paid a whopping $100 for our efforts.

Burton also had us cut the grass, weeds and stinging nettles at the original chapel site, just off the path from the log cabin to Raspberry Rock. Burton told us that we should keep the area accessible and neat because you never knew when an old camp alumni may visit the island.

An old, small rock cairn was in the middle of the chapel. 

The old chapel below Raspberry rock. The remains of the cairn may still be there.
The old chapel was moved from its original location in July 1925 to its current location, most likely because the original spot was a tad boggy and wet. The camp director at the time was Nelson McEwen.

From the Manitoba Free Press July 29, 1925:

Camp 'Stephen's 'Outdoor 'Chapel to Open Sunday 
The opening of the new. outdoor chapel at Camp Stephens, Lake of the Woods, near Kenora, will take place Sunday morning (Aug. 2). Rev. Dr. C. W. Gordon (Ralph Connor) will give the opening address in the chapel which is a natural cathedral entirely surrounded by high trees and with a doorway of two slender poplar.

The altar is of native stones collected and built by the boys of the Y.M.C.A camp. The entire work of clearing the space was done by a party of 34 boys who arose voluntarily at sun rise last Saturday to construct the altar. 

The entire space is fenced by white birch and will eventually be provided with seats of a rustic nature made of native woods. A communication has been received from the secretary of the camp stating: that all old campers are especially invited to attend the services.

 From the Aug. 5, 1925 edition of the newspaper:

Dedicate New Chapel at Y.M.C.A. Boys' Camp - Place of Worship in Grove of Trees

 A fitting service was held Sunday for the dedication of the outdoor chapel at Camp Stephens, the boys' camp of, the Winnipeg Y.M.C.A. in the Lake of the Woods, near Kenora.

 The chapel is a natural one, being entirely surrounded by massive trees, two of which form the gateway and four of which droop gracefully over the altar of stones. The entire space is enclosed by a white birch fence. Stones from the lake shore mark the various paths. 

 The entire service was conducted by Rev. Dr. C. W. Gordon, which to use his own phrase, "was unique." Fred Hubbard, the associate camp director, read the scripture lesson. A.D. Mitchell lead the reading of the 23rd Psalm.

 Nelson McEwen told his own story of the building of the chapel by the voluntary labor of the boys in the camp; the vision of the use that such a spot could be in the life of the camp as a place where the boys might worship, pray, and think; and where they might learn of the spirit of the camp, the spirit of "help the other fellow." 

 Rev. Dr. A.B. Baird dedicated the chapel. Rev. Dr. Gordon grave the address of the occasion; using the story of the buildling of Jacob's altar as the theme. The altar was unveiled by A.D. Mitchell and Alf McLarnon (who have attended the camp more than any other two). [More about McLarnon later]

 The offering of the morning service will be devoted to a fund to provide a set of chimes for the camp. A large group attended the Sacramental service following the dedication service and several boys made their first public confession of faith. 

 The service was attended by a large number from neighboring islands. 

Two early photos of the current site of the chapel and the upright sailboat.

I have more photos of this history chapel on Flickr. Click here to flip through.

So, one of our first jobs was gathering up and disposing of an old wooden sailboat that had been left to rot between some trees at the chapel off emblem rock. We had no clue why the boat was there. We just hauled it all away. I'm not sure what we did with it. We probably burned it.

In the years since I came to learn that the sailboat had been erected, placed upright, as part of the chapel's pulpit or lectern, several years before the chapel was dedicated in memory of camp cook Alfred Davey in 1966. One photo I have suggests the boat was placed in or about 1947.

I've also been told that he sailboat was erected in the memory of, I believe, two campers who drowned in the boat.

I can tell you now that isn't true.

Or former camp director Doug McEwen, Nelson's son, can:

"The sailboat in the chapel was there when I first attended camp in 1952," Doug says.

"When I worked on plans for the new ‘altar’ (with the granite rock pieces) I tried to find out more about the meaning and got some suggestions that the theme was ‘sailing to the sky’ but I suspect that was largely hearsay.

"We even investigated ways to incorporate the sailboat, but it was in very bad shape by then and we were seeking some permanence in the altar and seating features which also fit into the natural setting better," McEwen says.

"Someone even suggested to me that a camper had drowned in the sailboat, but Rev. Fred Douglas confirmed to me that that tale was spurious."

(Douglas was appointed camp director in May 1951 and served for two summers. He was succeeded by Alex Owen in April 1953.)

In other words, the sailboat was put there more or less as a decoration - nothing more.

However, that's not to say no one has ever drowned at Camp Stephens.

There have been at least two that I could find combing through the Winnipeg Free Press archives. One was a camper and the other a staff member who drowned on a canoe trip.

UPDATE - Drownings:

July 14, 1929: Leslie Brown, 12 

Brown was washed off a sandbar near camp.  A member of the St. Luke Wolf Cubs, his body was recovered two weeks later after washing up on a beach about five kilometres from camp.
He was buried at St. Mary's Cemetery following a service at St. Mary's Church.

June 23, 1934: Alfred McLarnon, 35 

McLarnon (who had helped dedicate the new chapel nine years earlier) and three other men had canoed from camp to Minaki to open a cottage for a friend when they hit choppy water and were quickly overtuned by waves. 
McLarnon, a well-regarded Winnipeg athlete, tried to swim to shore while the others stayed with the canoe.
"He swam part of the way when his horrified companions suddenly saw him throw up his arms and sink," a June 25, 1934 front page story says. "He did not rise again. He was too far away from them to go to his help."
McLarnon drowned within 40 yards of the shore.
McLarnon, a member of the Y.M.C.A., was to begin work at Camp Stephens for the summer in the coming days. He was also president of the Manitoba Amateur Basketball association and was vice-president of the Canadian Amateur Basketball association. He was described as an expert swimmer and canoeist.

The other men were Howard Severson, John Jack and Bert McKinney.
What's follows in Severson's account of what happened in a letter to Fred G. Hubbard, the general secretary of the Y.M.C.A.:

Minaki. Ont., June 24.

Dear Fred: 

You will have received my wire by this time and this will give you all the details of the accident. We left camp Thursday morning about 10. We portaged at Keewatin, had lunch, and then paddled through the Dalles, camping just this side. We arrived at Minaki about 2 Friday afternoon. Alf's reason for making the trip was to help Mrs. F. H. Osborne open her camp at Gunn lake. We met Mrs. Osborne that night and helped open the camp that night and also worked around Saturday morning.

                                Lake Quite Rough 

Saturday afternoon Alf suggested that we paddle into town (Minaki) in the Osborne canoe. The wind was very heavy and the lake quite rough. We started with Alf in the stern, Johnny Jack and Bert Mc-Kinney in the centre and myself in the bow. We took the lea side of two islands but when we came to the last point before the rough water, we changed so that the whole four of us were padding. We headed directly into the waves, but they were so large the we would slip a bit every so ofen. Also, there were cross winds as soon as the wind was broken by some islands which we were heading for. The boat swamped some distance from these islands, leaving the four of us hanging on to the canoe trying to keep it from rolling. For a while Alf's feet were entangled in a fish line which had been in the boat. The line was also entangled in Bert's legs. While freeing himself of the line, I believe Alf swallowed some water. The wind was drifting us very slowly toward an island about half a mile away. We got so that we were holding on to the canoe very well, but the water was so cold and the exertions we were making to keep the canoe steady and to help it along were very tiring to us all. Several times both Johnny and I would ask Alf if he were O.K., but he would not say anything. Bert was in very poor condition, with hisf feet tangled, and was not very hopeful of our condition.

                                 Drifted 45 minutes 

We had drifted for easily three quarters of an hour when the waves rolled the canoe again, putting us all in the water. Alf came up about 10 feet from the boat and appeared to be .swimming toward the approaching shore, which was about 40 yards off. Both Johnny and I yelled at him to come back. He turned around and looked at us, then turned toward shore, then sank. At the time he sank, the canoe was rolling steadily, Johnny was more or less holding Bert and I was steadying the canoe as best I could. Neither of us could have swam to where Alf sank and dived for him as we were entirely exhausted. We touched bottom about seven minutes later as the canoe drifted fast. We then got it on a rock and had to look after Bert, who had lost his reason for the moment. We massaged ourselves to a slight degree of warmth and then looked after Bert, getting him stripped and warm. Johnny and I returned to the beach and searched diligently, but Alf had made no reappearance. For the next two hours we were engaged in trying to find paddles, looking for Alf, and seeing that Bert was all right. We broke into one of the closed cabins and got oars. We found a row boat and eventually went back to Osborne's. We ate, then crossed to Dr. Mann's Island and his boatman took us to town to report the drowning. We notified the local constable. He said he would make dragging arrangements. We then telephoned Mr. Jack and my mother. After a considerable delay we could not get any of Alf's friends in the city, so I phone Joe Millen. This morning we started dragging, but with no results. Operations will continue this afternoon. Alf's brother has been informed by Joe as there is a wire from him today. We will probably return to camp by going up the Winnipeg River in one of the regular launches with run Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On arriving at Kenora we will probably paddle to camp, leaving one canoe at Kenora. You will agree that this accident is most regrettable. The three of us feel very sorry, but I do not think that we could do anything more at the time than we did. We will stay at the Osborne's until the body is recovered and arrangements completed.

Yours sincerely,


                          Pays Tribute to Victim

High tribute was paid to thevictim of the fatality by Mr. Hubbard,with whom McLarnon had been actively associated in Y.M.C.A. work.

Mr. Hubbard said: "I was shocked to' hear of his untimely death, and he will be greatly missed at the Y.M.C.A. He was a young man of fine character, and set a splendid example to others. Alf was a member of the Order of the Quest, membership in which is the highest honor that can be paid to any camper at Camp Stephens. He understood, and put into practice the camp motto: 'Help the other fellow.' Both in the Y.M.C.A. and at camp he was always regarded as a willing worker and helper as far as the boys were concerned. He was to have been on the staff of the boys' camp at Camp Stephens this summer, and he will be greatly missed."