September Mariners’ Service marks 100 years of history

This Gazette file photo from April 21, 1940, which appeared in a subsequent Toronto Telegram article, shows the decorated dais from that year’s Mariners’ Service. The decorations from the scene above were donated by several seafaring families from all corners of Prince Edward County and beyond. (Courtesy Naval Marine Archive-The Canadian Collection)



In April 1923, at the prompting of local resident Captain Nelson Palmatier, the Cherry Valley Wesleyan Church held a special service for those who worked on the waters, and those who had died upon the waters.

The Mariners’ Service became an almost annual tradition on an April Sunday. It featured, in addition to the regular church service, a special talk, naval decoration of the church, and the honouring of the names of recently lost sailors.

Historian Paul Adamthwaite, of the Naval Marine Archive, notes that the Mariners’ Service originates in an early-spring tradition, the Blessing of the Fleet, which celebrates the opening of the sailing season. The Service, however, quickly developed its own identity. Guest speakers included Mariners’ perspectives in addition to that of the church.

“The perfect parallel” between the church service and the speaker would draw in the families of the seamen and their communities.

“We are, in fact, a maritime community,” said Mr. Adamthwaite. “Farmers need ships to move their harvest.”

Following the Second World War, the service was held less often. It was revived in 1970 at a new location, the South Bay United Church. This church, now adjacent to the Mariners’ Museum, has hosted the ceremony since. It is now held in the fall, and, this year it will mark its 100th anniversary with Rev. Phil Hobbs presiding. Since 1996, Rev. Hobbs has orchestrated about ten Mariners’ Services at South Bay United.

“This is an island, and we have deep heritage in the waters. A hundred years ago or more, every family had fishers or merchant marines earning their living from the lake, whether in the barley trade or even the rum-runners to the U.S. during Prohibition. Today our interaction with the water is much more recreational, but no less important.”

“The Mariners’ Service celebrates this heritage,” said Rev. Hobbs. “It also remembers the lake can be unforgiving, and we read the honour roll to remember those we have lost.” Rev. Hobb’s definition of the mariner is expansive; the service recognizes and thanks first responders. The ship’s bell, borrowed from the Mariners Park Museum next door, will be rung for each name, and a trumpeter will play the Last Post.

“We will also honour the great contribution made by County sailors who served in the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian women in uniform, including a number from the County, and the way that the home front rallied to provide comfort items for the sailors serving on HMCS Hallowell in the North Atlantic during World War II.”

“We also must acknowledge that the first mariners were not the European explorers, but the Indigenous peoples for whom the waterways were highways.”

A particular honouree at this year’s Mariners’ Service will be Suzanne Pasternak, a local marine historian whose best-known work is a folk opera, Minerva. It tells the story of a young ship’s cook in the 1870s who saves her father and his crew in a Lake Ontario storm.

County Museums curator Jessica Chase notes that the Mariners’ Service will include performances of some of Ms. Pasternak’s music, as well as tributes to her contributions to local history. Not only is this a significant anniversary of the Mariners’ Service, Mr. Adamthwaite notes it is also one of the few dedicated Mariners’ Services still regularly held.

“It is certainly the last continuing service on the Canadian Side of the Great Lakes. Even in the 1930s and ’40s it was recognized as unique in what it had to offer.”

In the spirit of this deep County tradition, all are welcome at the Mariners’ Service.

It will be held at South Bay United Church, Sunday 24 September at 9:30.