There’s something about Downeyville…

The ‘Heart of Emily’ beats strong, alive with family, faith, and enduring traditions

By Geoff Coleman

A large group of Downeyville residents gathered outside of St. Luke's Catholic Church after Mass, posing for the Advocate's Geoff Coleman.

“Where in Kawartha Lakes will you find a soprano prima donna, a child literacy expert social media influencer, and an internationally-known leader in the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people?”

Clue number one: The population is too small to be officially recorded anywhere, but there are only about 200 families on the parish diocese.

Clue number two: Think Irish.

Clue number three: Think Catholic.

Clue number four: Think Irish Catholic.

Downeyville, anyone?

Situated roughly halfway between Lindsay and Ennismore, less than 10 km north of Omemee on Sturgeon Road, at first blush, Downeyville is nothing remarkable. But when a list of community personalities, activities, events, and accomplishments is examined, it becomes clear Downeyville is greater than the sum of its parts. This little village punches far above its weight, thanks to a shared history that creates a community spirit much bigger than what should exist in a place it’s size.

Physically and metaphysically, ground zero for all things Downeyville is the St. Luke’s Catholic Church hall. The church itself was built in 1858, and the hall was completed in 1919. Today, a mutualistic relationship exists between the people of Downeyville and the hall: the building provides a place for people to gather and socialize at events which in turn helps raise money to maintain the structure.

Jessie Carroll is the hall administrator, and she can rhyme off a list of bookings at the centre ranging from euchre nights and dances to bingos, karaoke nights, and the annual Downeyville Jamboree. She says, “While community halls all over are closing, this one is getting a renovation…it is modernizing, and it is booked steady.”

Seventh generation Downeyvillian, Ab Carroll points out that the church and community hall are rallying points. “There’s always something happening that ensures the church and hall is looked after. On the other hand, if a fundraising event is organized at the hall for a specific person or cause, you just go. You might not even know the person that is benefiting, but you still go. Our community values come from that space,” says, the 28-year-old auctioneer.

Seventh generation Downeyville resident, Ab Carroll. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

The community values he speaks of appear to be what ultimately gives Downeyville its distinct character. When speaking to residents about what makes the hamlet special, descriptions like “welcoming,” “rooted in its history,” and “everybody knows everybody,” kept coming up. Countless examples of neighbours helping neighbours during difficult times are cited, of thousands of dollars raised in days for families suddenly facing hardship, and of having too many volunteers when the call goes out for assistance at a function. (A nice problem to have.)

Just why this happens so predictably is the $64,000 dollar question.

The answer might lie in another word that also kept recurring: family. Both literally and figuratively, locals see Downeyville as a huge, extended family.

Part of this is because there actually are a few large families dominating the population. Not in a backwoods, Appalachian, the movie Deliverance kind of way, but in the way that if you sat down at a table for a game of euchre, you could probably figure out that someone at the table is a distant relative.

Hannah Brouwer felt the pull to return to Downeyville and opened up a popular bake shop. Photo: Geoff Coleman.
Mary Connell, left, chatting with Helen Scott, right. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

Kelly Connell married into one such family and soon learned that almost everyone in Downeyville is connected either through family or shared heritage. “Even as someone who wasn’t born and raised in Downeyville, I could appreciate the strong roots of this community right away. If I wasn’t sure of the identity of someone, I could ask anyone and I would quickly learn their name, a minimum of three family connections likely spanning two or three generations, and – for good measure – the location of where they would regularly sit at Sunday Mass.”

Few people have more respect for the shared Downeyville history than Mary Connell. The community matriarch believes the unique town spirit can be traced back to 1825 when the first settlers left Ireland on free passage to Canada aboard nine British navy ships, selected from over 50,000 applicants from to receive 70 acres of free land in Douro, Ennismore, or Downeyville along with provisions and farm machinery. After a month-long crossing of the Atlantic, the new immigrants were granted “18 months’ rations as follows: each adult: 1 pound of salt pork, 1 pound of flour per day.” Children five to 14 years got half that ration, while under five years were on quarter rations. Besides the food rations, each family received three bushels of seed potatoes, one peck of seed corn, a cow (for milk), a handsaw, a kettle, an iron pot, an auger, axes, 100 nails, two gimlets and three hoes. To acquire title to their lots, the new settlers had to live five years on their lots and clear at least 20 acres.

They also got a winter that was much colder than the four-to-seven-degree Celsius Februarys they were accustomed to.

Connell feels the cooperation and pioneering spirit that allowed settlers to overcome adversity and succeed in their new surroundings is still inherent in today’s residents, adding that two families – the Fitzpatricks and the Sullivans – are still on the original homesteads. Connell also notes that help in those early years from local Indigenous people with building shelter and making clothes was invaluable to their survival.

Likewise, Marnie Callaghan sees the significance of the past in present day Downeyville.

“I think the community spirit comes largely from a shared history. All of us are aware that the comfortable lives we lead are thanks to the hardships that our ancestors endured.”

Callaghan says that “communities that share a common church, school and gathering place are fast disappearing, but here there is a genuine interest and caring for the wellbeing of neighbours and community members.”

She believes multi-generational events are the antidote to most of what ails the world.

Helen Scott, who lists University of Toronto professor and epidemiologist with the World Health Organization on her CV, views Downeyville as a faith-based community. “Practicing or not, people here are part of a tradition of being in communion with people, of knowing and taking care of each other.” She credits senior leadership and a willing volunteer base in the community for the many benevolent undertakings in Downeyville which include sponsoring Syrian refugee families, delivering welcome gifts to new arrivals, and raising $1,000,000 in eight years for the hall renovations.

Few people embody the pull of Downeyville more than Hannah Brouwer (nee Lucas). After living in Lindsay for eight years, she moved back to Downeyville, bringing her husband Rob and family along. In fact, they bought the house she grew up in, and the general store where she would rent movies as a kid, converting it to a bakery. Of all the places a formally trained opera singer-turned-baker could have settled with her former international rugby-playing husband, why Downeyville?

“To me, Downeyville has always been home, and I think Rob is starting to feel that way as well. The community has shown Rob and I incredible support, both through our business and through a very difficult time for us personally this past year. It is overwhelming to think of how thoughtful and loving so many members of the community are.”

Brouwer says from the annual school BBQ, fun fair, Downeyville Jamboree, fish fry, beef BBQ, Irish Concert, there’s no shortage of family-friendly events from her childhood that are still running today. “I can only hope our children are making memories that they’ll recall 30 years later when thinking about the wonderful community they grew up in.”

Without a doubt, people express similar sentiments in every community across Kawartha Lakes. Fundraisers and benefit dances occur everywhere from Little Britain to Coboconk, but the Downeyville buy-in seems to be on another level.

As Jessie Carroll points out, part of that might be because the social gatherings are just plain fun. “Everyone you want to see will be there, so you don’t have to spend time driving over to their houses, you can get all your visiting in at once.”

Kelly Connell adds, “Downeyville’s love of tradition and togetherness often presents as a very good time (such as) St. Patrick’s Day Irish concerts, Raise the Roof jamborees, or Homecoming Weekend celebrations. A lot of talent has been fostered in this community.”

It’s one thing to have great attendance at an event, but it is something else altogether to actually organize and run the affair. As Marnie Callaghan reminds us, “All of these events happen because there are some incredibly dedicated volunteers, both young and old who recognize of the value of a strong community, and hope that it will continue for coming generations.”

The Downeyville Hall and St. Luke’s Catholic Church are beside each other in the village. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

It’s hard to think of another spot in Kawartha Lakes where being of Irish, and Irish Catholic, heritage is so important to how people see themselves. It’s definitely not an exclusionary thing, and not everyone is Irish, but it is always in the air in a positive way.

Next month, there will be no better place, outside of a pub in County Cork, to spend the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day.

Except maybe the following year, when Downeyville celebrates 200 years of being the “Heart of Emily.”

As Connell says, “People are what makes Downeyville and they know how to have fun and support each other. It’s a vibrant community, kept strong through sharing of story and song.”

1 Comment

  1. Joan Abernethy says:

    Great atory.

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