An Unlikely Hero
From Grey County (Part 1)

An Unlikely Hero From Grey County found his way from the farming community of Flesherton to missionary work in the Ottawa Valley, and beyond.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

This past week I attended the annual conference of the Canadian Methodist Historical Society in Markdale Ontario. 

When I arrived at the Annesley United Church on Monday morning, I was surprised to see only one car in the parking lot. 

What was remarkable about this vehicle was its licence plate.  It was from Alabama! 

I wondered why anyone would drive all the way from the deep south of the United States to attend a historical conference which was, essentially, focused on the Grey-Bruce region. 

My question was soon answered. As I entered the church, a man walked towards me and, in a deep southern drawl, introduced himself as Gene Howard. 

After a short conversation, he told me he was at the conference to speak about a book he had written, and to show a movie produced by Alabama public television. The focus of the book and movie was an early settler from Flesherton Ontario. 

In the 1840s, John and Jane Luke brought their young family from Ireland to escape the potato famine there. Among their brood was their son, William. 

After attending a one-room school near Flesherton, it was decided that William should attend school in Owen Sound. His family did not have a lot of cash, so they augmented his tuition and boarding expenses with fresh produce from their farm. 

On his return from school in Owen Sound, William continued to read voraciously. 

As he was strongly tied to the local Methodist Church, he began to act as a youth leader in the local Flesherton church. His growing devotion to Methodism led him to seek a career as a Methodist minister. 

William, at age 23, returned to Owen Sound in 1855 to study under an elder of the Methodist church there. Soon, he accepted a small pastorate in Proton Mission, then Elora, and later Wallace. In 1858 he received his commission as a minister at the 35th annual conference of the Methodist Church in Montreal. 

In the same year, William married Fanny Ann Irwin, the daughter of a prominent Markdale family. While preaching in Wallace, he learned to speak German fluently. Because of his successes, the Methodist Church felt William was the ideal candidate to start charges in the largely German and Lutheran Ottawa Valley community of Eganville. 

The young couple eagerly accepted this challenge and headed east to begin their new work. Little did they realize what was in store for them. 

The citizens of Eganville did not exactly welcome the young couple from Grey County with open arms. 'The Lutherans did not want another church challenging them for parishioners. 

The Lukes were under constant scrutiny and a "relentless barrage of antagonisms". However, William continued undaunted to try to build his congregation. 

Within a year of his arrival, serious trouble arose for William. A German family charged William Luke with adultery. The district officials of the Methodist Church reacted by suspending William from his charge. 

Over the next few years, succeeding conferences of the Methodist Church upheld the suspension. No conclusive evidence survives which either vindicates or convicts Luke. Nor are there any surviving records which show the reason for the Methodists' harsh actions to what may have been "trumped-up" charges. 

William Luke and his family returned to the Markdale area where he answered a new calling. In the area were many black families who had arrived here to escape slavery in the southern United States. Luke threw himself wholeheartedly into teaching these new citizens of Grey County and, I'm sure, providing some ministerial leadership. 

Why was Gene Howard, an Alabama historian, interested in a defrocked Methodist minister from Grey County? 

Luke's interest in the plight of former slaves led him to look elsewhere to establish a career and build a new life for his family, which now included six children. 

Next week's column will detail what turned out to be the final chapter in the life of William Luke. 

Note: I would like to thank Gene Howard of Jacksonville, Alabama, for making his research notes available to me for this column.

A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on June 22, 1996.

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