Pedalling to Peniel
Just in Time: Forgotten hamlets of Kawartha Lakes
In the closing lines of the musical Les Misérables, Valjean, Fantine and Eponine sing one of the most remarkable lines in musical theatre: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” A little over 80 years after the events depicted in Les Mis, France had become enmeshed in the First World War. Wounded soldiers gazing into the eyes of Nursing Sister Winnifred Ethel Hardy, saw, if not the face of God, then certainly a face of kindness and compassion. The nursing sisters were, after all, known as “angels of mercy” and their ministrations won the love and respect of their patients.
In reflecting on the relationship between Canada’s nursing sisters and servicemen during that conflict, this line from Les Mis is powerfully evocative. It seems fitting, then, that Winnifred Hardy (1889-1978) was born and raised in Peniel, Ontario — a tiny crossroads community some 20 kilometres northwest of Lindsay, so named for a Hebrew word that means “the face of God.”
Peniel (pronounced with a long i, as in “mile,” and the emphasis on the second syllable: peh-NY-al) is my destination on an unseasonably hot Saturday. The apple blossoms are in full bloom, and the verdant leaves are once more gracing the maple trees I pass as I make my way west along bumpy Peniel Road. A pair of cows looks at me suspiciously as I pedal past one of the many farmsteads sporting tree-lined lanes and cedar-rail fences.
It’s about 1:20 p.m. when I reach Peniel proper. I have made arrangements to have a personal tour of Peniel United Church at 2 p.m. but first I turn south and head in the direction of Quaker Road. There, on the northeast corner of the latter and County Road 46, is the brick schoolhouse known variously as Cedar Grove School, Peniel School and Wylie’s School. Built in 1888, it was heated by a woodstove until 1967. This charming school served local students until 1972 and is now a private home.
I look both ways, cross the highway, and head back towards the church. It’s well past lunchtime, so I stop at the side of the road and clamber down into the ditch for a picnic consisting of ham and turkey sandwiches, bran muffins, fruit and a refreshing can of carbonated water. It hits the spot, though it’s a far cry from what was enjoyed at a garden party held at the nearby Osborne farm almost 125 years before. As the Peniel correspondent reported in the July 15, 1898 edition of the Canadian Post, “a spirited program was rendered, and the ladies had prepared a grand spread, consisting of cakes, coffee, and other luxuries, which would do honour to any caterer in the city.”
I finish my lunch and after watching young carp zip through the little brook in front of me, head back up to the roadside. Within minutes, I pass the stately red-brick house which in 1910 replaced an earlier building on George and Annie Hardy’s farm. Numbering among the seven Hardy children were Winnifred, who in 1916 graduated from the Ross Memorial Hospital’s nursing program, and William George Hardy (1895-1979), who was awarded several scholarships at the University of Toronto and went on to become a prolific scholarly writer. Hardy’s dissertation, Greek Epigrammatists at Rome in the First Century B.C., earned him a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1922 and he spent over four decades in the Department of Classics at the University of Alberta.
For the Hardys and other Peniel-area families, the church was quite literally the centre of their community. Built in 1913 to replace an earlier edifice blown down during a windstorm, Peniel United Church originally served a Methodist congregation. Today, it is one of six churches forming the United Community Ministry. Although its tin ceiling hasn’t echoed with the sound of song since pre-pandemic times, this spacious church continues to enrich the lives of residents through a number of events — not least monthly euchre nights and the annual Paddle the Drain canoe regatta, which sees participants paddle down a drainage ditch winding its way through local farms.
For more than a century, the annual church-run dinner has ranked high on Peniel’s social calendar. On Nov. 5, 1914, the Watchman-Warder reported that “the hot fowl supper served on the prettily decorated and well-laden tables was enjoyed by a very large number, while the auditorium was thronged with people, even the steps and basement being called into service to hold those who otherwise could not have heard the lecture and music given.”
Growing up, Evelyn Chambers joined her fellow parishioners in preparing the suppers. “We had no running water here at the church, so those that had cream cans brought water in cream cans and we heated it up with Coleman stoves, and that’s how we cooked stuff,” she tells me as I’m shown through the church’s basement, where generations have feasted over convivial conversation. “I can remember being here until 11 o’clock at night, still serving people,” Chambers recalls.
Serving people. From comforting the sick in a hospital during the First World War to plating pies in the church kitchen at fowl suppers, Peniel’s residents past and present have long been the face of duty, neighbourliness and hospitality.