Francis Skillen & Mary Kerns and Their Irish Descendents in Canada

By

Terence Martin Skillen

 

Irish census data strongly identifies the surname Skillen with County Down in the Province of Ulster. There were by the 1800’s Skillen inhabitants of County Down all along the east coast from the top of the Ards peninsula down to Kilkeel, located in the Mourne Mountains near the south eastern tip of the county. The surname was also found in and around Belfast in County Antrim from the late 1700’s. There is some evidence of the name being found in other parts of Ireland, for example, Cork, where Thomas Skillen an artist and his sisters lived in the 1800’s. A Mary Betty Skillen, born 1833 in County Wexford married a Patrick Sommers, born in 1825. The couple left Ireland in 1855 and settled near McKeesport, Pennsylvania.   An old Church of Ireland cathedral is located in County Wexford from where a Skillen made his way to the USA and then to New Brunswick as a New Empire Loyalist. In County Clare there was at least one Skillen identified in the 1860’s.

The birthplaces of Francis Skillen and Mary Kerns are unknown. There has been a romantic notion among some of Francis’ descendents that he originated in Enniskillen, County Tyrone. This fantasy has been perpetuated among other Skillen lines as well, the attraction being a castle and a nobleman supposedly of whom we are descendents. There is no proof that a Skillen is descended from an Enniskillen or in any way associated with the town of Enniskillen.

Given the limitations on travel in the early 19th century it is likely that Francis and Mary were from the same location in Ireland. The circumstances of their first meeting can only be imagined. Historically in Ireland the surname Skillen is strongly identified with Protestant denominations. Francis was a member of the Church of Ireland. His family, as members of the established church, would have enjoyed more civil privileges than Mary’s Catholic family, in spite of the English being in the minority, compared to both the Presbyterian Scottish and Roman Catholic Irish who vastly outnumbered the English in County Down. We have not established that Francis Skillen was of English origin or that he was from County Down. Perhaps there were two streams of Skillen settlers to Ireland, first, the earlier English arrivals and second, the Scots Presbyterians. The English did establish a settlement in the mid 1500’s at Newry near the Mourne area of Down before the Scots Presbyterians came as settlers in 1610.

It seems unlikely that English Skillen adherents to the Church of Ireland would convert to Presbyterianism given the downward shift in civil status such a move would bring. Converting to the established church which accorded civil and economic advantages would have been more appealing although, matters of the heart may have resulted in conversions to Presbyterianism. After all, Francis Skillen did marry Mary Kerns, a Catholic, and he did eventually convert to Roman Catholicism albeit many years after marriage in Canada, far away from sectarian influences in Ireland, and probably for an expedient reason rather a conversion of the heart.

The majority of Irish and Scottish Skillen immigrants to North America were not members of the Church of Ireland. An informal review of historical data indicates a strong Skillen identification with Presbyterianism and other reformed denominations such as Congregational and Baptist. There is also a link with Methodism which originated in the Anglican Church. An informal survey resulting from contacts with persons with the Skillen surname listed in telephone directories in Canada identifies most as having Irish ancestors who were Protestants.  The Roman Catholic adherence of Francis Skillen and Mary Kerns family and descendents resulted from a mixed marriage and is an anomaly among the early Skillen families that emigrated from Ireland to Canada.

The extended Skillen family that has resided in the Gatineau valley from about 1835 to the present are descended from Francis Skillen and his wife Mary Kerns who settled in Wakefield Township, Ottawa County, Lower Canada which is now the province of Quebec. Francis and Mary arrived in Canada from Ireland about 1834. The circumstances of the family’s emigration from Ireland and arrival in Bytown, Carleton County, Upper Canada are unknown. Francis, born about 1807, was about twenty years old and Mary, born about 1812, was fifteen or sixteen at the time of their marriage. They would have married about 1827 or 1828 if indeed they had married before the birth of their first child Ann, born on 22 February, 1829. Given Mary’s age when Ann was born, it was probably her first completed pregnancy. While it was not entirely uncommon for Irish girls to marry at age fourteen, a marriage at such a young age might have resulted from a pressing need such as an unexpected pregnancy. Documentation has not been found to show that Mary’s first child was either conceived or born out of wedlock. Nor has proof of Francis and Mary’s marriage in Ireland been found.

An out of wedlock pregnancy would have put considerable social pressure on this young couple given their religious differences. It certainly would not have been an event welcomed by their families. Since a church registration has not been found in Ireland for Ann, we do not know where and when she was born or baptized. If Ann was born out of wedlock it is probable that Mary would have had her baptized in a Catholic church. If the couple had married in a Catholic church, Ann may have been baptized there as well. If the couple had married in the Church of Ireland Ann would probably have been baptized in that Church. We do have some indicators of marital conflict around the issue of the children’s baptisms. Catherine, the couple’s second child, was born on 3 January, 1834, five years after Ann. A baptism in a Catholic church is recorded as having taken place in Bytown, Upper Canada on May 18, 1835, sixteen months after Catherine’s birth in Ireland. What circumstances could have prevented the baptism of Catherine in a Catholic church in Ireland before the family set out for Canada?  If Catherine was baptized in Ireland might the sacrament have been undertaken by a Church of Ireland priest? Without documentation we are unable to prove that Catherine was baptized in the Church of Ireland before the family left for Canada. According to the 1841 Canadian census the children were being raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Still we have to wonder if religious conflict between the parents had resulted in a stalemate until a situation in Bytown permitted Mary Skillen to have the sacrament conducted in the local Catholic Church. A first effort in 2003 at viewing microfilm at the Public Records Office in Belfast did not find documentary proof of either Ann or Catherine being baptized in Northern Ireland.

Francis was about twenty-seven years old and Mary about twenty-one when they left Ireland sometime after January 1834 following Catherine’s birth. The port of entry to Canada was probably Quebec City. The family would have made their way by boat up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and from there by steamboat up the Ottawa River to either Wrightstown or Bytown. The trip from Quebec City to Montreal and up the Grande (Ottawa) River to Bytown might have taken more than a week.

Church of England services were being conducted in a Wrightstown school-house from 1824 and an Anglican church was built in Wrightstown in 1826. In Bytown there were small Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches by 1828. In 1833, just a year before the Skillen family arrived, an Anglican church was constructed in Bytown. In 1834 the Catholic community in Bytown was a mission of the Diocese of Montreal. On 7 Sept. 1828 approval was given for the construction of a larger wooden church. It took four years before a structure was raised. St. James church was built in 1832 on the sight of the present Notre Dame Cathedral on Sussex Drive. The wooden church was replaced by a stone building in 1842.  It became Notre Dame Cathedral in July 1848 following the ordination of Fr. Bruno Guigues, o.m.i. to Bishop of Bytown Diocese. The Oblate priests served the populations on both sides of the Ottawa River.

 

Catherine Skillen was 17 months old when she was baptized in St. James, the small Catholic Church constructed of wood in Bytown. The church registry describes Catherine as being two years old at the time of baptism.  Surprising is the length of time that elapsed between the arrival of the family in Canada sometime in 1834 and the baptism of Catherine in May 1835. There was ample time between the child’s birth and the departure of the family from Ireland in the spring for a baptism to occur. Given the problem the mixed marriage created for the couple and their families it might have been easiest for the couple to forego a church ceremony that was bound to escalate the conflict.

 

The birth of Elizabeth, the couple’s third child, took place on or about June 17, 1835 in Bytown, Upper Canada. Two baptisms are recorded for Elizabeth. She is baptized in the Catholic Church in Bytown on July 1, 1835 with date of birth given as June 17, 1835 and witnesses being Timothy O’Meara and Eliza Kelley. She is again baptized in Christ Anglican Church with date of birth given as June 20, 1835 and date of baptism July 26, 1835. Witnesses are Francis Skillen and a Burwell who was probably the wife or another relative of the clergyman, A. H. Burwell who performed the sacrament. Mary (Kerns) Skillen, Elizabeth’s mother, did not sign the register. It is very likely that she was not in agreement with Elizabeth being baptized in the Church of England.

The actual circumstances of the family upon their arrival in Bytown are unknown. The Rideau Canal undertaken by Colonel By had been completed in the late 1820’s prior to the arrival of Francis and Mary. With the completion of the canal many Irish immigrants were thrust out of work. There would not have been ready work for an unskilled Irishman newly landed in Bytown. We do know that Francis was resident in Bytown and he was working as a labourer in 1835 when the couple’s third child was baptized.  How long Francis and Mary remained in Bytown is unknown. There were employment opportunities available in the logging industry on the north side of the Ottawa River in the Gatineau valley. Lumber companies were granted rights by the crown to cut timber. When the land was cleared it was settled by farmers who sold their crops to the lumber companies. The Skillen family may have moved across the Ottawa River soon after Elizabeth’s birth in 1835, perhaps first to Aylmer or Chelsea, before settling on a grant of land in Wakefield Township. The family was enumerated in the 1841 census in Wakefield Township.  They reported being in Canada for seven years. They were living in a log house. Francis was cultivating some of the land. We know from census data that Francis and his family were resident in Wakefield Township many years before he received legal title in 1862 to the land grant. The grant of land to which he gained legal title consisted of 100 acres in Wakefield Township which was contained in the north part of Lot 3, Range 11 a short distance north of Farrellton and about two miles south of the Village of Lowe.

Within a year or so of Elizabeth’s birth Mary gave birth to the couple’s fourth and fifth children, James and John, twins born about 1836. No documented evidence of the births or baptisms of the twin boys have been found.  They were baptised in neither the Catholic nor the Anglican Church in Bytown. Nor are there baptismal documents for the twins in either St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Aylmer or St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Old Chelsea. No evidence of the births has been found in the records held in the Quebec Archives located in Hull, Quebec. The baptisms of the boys are not registered in the Anglican Church Archives for West Quebec and Ottawa. We do know that Presbyterian and Methodist churches had been built in Bytown before the family’s arrival and it is possible that John and James were baptized in one of these churches. The 1841 census for Wakefield Township identifies two male children residing with Francis and Mary. The couple had only the two male children.  Census data for later years identify James and John by name as members of the Skillen family. The registry for St. Camillus parish records the marriage of John to Ann O’Rourke. There is no record of James being married in St. Camillus church.

 

Mary’s sixth child was Maria, born on 14 October, 1842 and baptised on 18 October, 1842 in St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Aylmer, Quebec. Two years later Margaret the seventh child was born on 6 November, 1844 and baptised 22 June, 1845 in St. Paul’s Church, Aylmer. On November 16, 1864 Margaret was married to Flamino Gaspari in St. Paul’s church. There are no further references to the couple in St. Paul’s church register.

 

Letitia, the eighth child was born on May 13, 1849 and baptised on 17 June, 1839 in St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Old Chelsea, Quebec. St. Stephen’s parish had been established on October 15, 1845 which allowed Mary and Francis to travel a shorter distance to have their second last child baptised. Ellen the couple’s ninth and last child was born on December 25, 1851 and baptised on January 25, 1852 in St. Camillus Church at Farrellton.

 

Ann Skillen was eighteen when she married Matthew Linnot or Sinnott on 22 June, 1848 in St. Stephen’s church in Old Chelsea, Quebec. Matthew was born on April 25, 1817 in Ireland. He was 31 years old at the time of his marriage to Anne. The couple had ten children. The spelling of Matthew’s surname changes over time as recorded in church registry and census forms. It is spelled variously Linnot, Sinnot and Synnett. After the family moved to Wisconsin the surname became Synnott. It is believed that Matthew was either a former seminarian or a priest from Wexford County, Ireland who forsake the clergy and immigrated to Canada with an aunt and uncle. His parents remained in Ireland but he had relatives in Canada. He may have taught school in Farrellton. Matthew became a farmer. Information from the 1871 census suggests that Matthew and Anne were residing on the same property as Francis and Mary Skillen. It is possible that some members of the Synnott family were working on the Skillen farm. Francis would have been about 64 years old in 1871. The Synnott family moved to Nassau, Wisconsin in 1881. Matthew Synnott died about age 67 in 1882 shortly after moving to Wisconsin. Ann (Skillen) Synnott remained in Wisconsin and she was living with her son Frank at the time of her death in 1913.

 

On 10 June 1851, at the age of seventeen, Catherine Skillen married Denis O’Sullivan a forty-four year old Irish Catholic born in County Cork in 1816. They were married in St. Camillus Roman Catholic church in Farrellton, Quebec. The newly married couple were living with Catherine’s parents when the 1851 census was conducted. They eventually acquired their own farm in Lowe Township. Catherine gave birth to only one child, Jeremiah, born 11 April, 1852. Denis died in 1883. Catherine died in 1911 having lived to the age of seventy-seven. Both Denis and Catherine are buried in St. Camillus cemetery in Farrellton. Their son Jeremiah dropped the O’ from his surname. He married Mary Margaret Mahoney in 1872 and the couple had twelve children.

 

John Skillen married Ann O’Rourke on September 17, 1876. John was about forty years old and Ann was about thirty-one at the time of marriage. Francis Skillen would have been about 68 years old at the time of his son’s marriage and retired from active farming. John and Ann had five children including, Martin John born 12 June, 1877;  Letitia Mary Ann born 03 Oct. 1878;  James Francis Xavier, born 25 January, 1880;  John Jeremiah, born August 17, 1881 who died a year after birth on 7 September, 1882 and John Alexander, born on 24 December, 1883. The children lost their parents to death unexpectedly when disease, possibly diphtheria, took Ann on February 15, 1897.  John died at the age of 60 on March 23, 1897 probably of the same disease. Both are buried in St. Camillus cemetery at Farrellton, Quebec.

 

James Skillen is not recorded as having married while living in the Gatineau valley. He is identified as a member of Francis and Mary Skillen’s family until 1861. He is not enumerated in the 1871 census for Wakefield or Lowe townships.

 

The circumstances of the other daughters of Francis and Mary Skillen after 1861 are unknown except for Margaret. The 1861 census identifies Elizabeth as a 25 year old spinster living with her parents. Also living at home are Maria a nineteen year old spinster as well as Margaret age fifteen, Letitia, age ten and Ellen age eight. Three years later on November 16, 1864 Margaret, just ten days before her 20th birthday married a Flamino Gaspari in St. Paul’s church in Aylmer. There are no records of marriage for the other daughters of Francis and Mary in the parish church at Farrellton, Quebec. It is possible that some of the women were married but there is no record in the Quebec Archives office in Hull, Quebec. Some of the girls may have left home to find employment in or around Ottawa Ontario.

 

Census information provides a sketch of the circumstances of Francis and Mary Skillen in Canada. Elizabeth’s baptismal records reveal that the family was residing in Bytown for at least a year after their arrival in Canada. The census of 1842 describes Francis as a farmer residing in Wakefield Township, Ottawa County, Lower Canada who had been in Canada for seven years. There were eight persons in the Skillen household in 1842. Four persons were natives of Ireland and four persons were natives of Canada. One child was under one year of age. Two males were between 5 and 14 years old. There were three females in the household and one was over 14 years old. One male was over 30. There were five children between the ages of 5 and 16. One person was Church of England. One person was Church of Rome. The family occupied 100 acres of which 15 acres was improved land. The land had produced 20 bushels of wheat, 50 bushels of oats and 300 bushels of potatoes. Livestock consisted of one horse, three cattle and one pig.

 

Ten years later the 1851 census finds the family farming on 100 acres of land located on the north part of Lot 3 in Range 11, probably the same land as in 1841. Neighbours to the south were the Patrick Farrell family, to the west, Samuel Thompson, to the north, William Kelly and to the east Thomas Cassidy. The Skillen property was located on the Wakefield/Denholm Township line, about a mile north of Farrellton and the Gatineau River bisected the property. Ann Skillen had married Matthew Synnott in June 1848 and the couple was living in their own home with one child and Ann pregnant for her second when the census was conducted in January, 1852. Living with Francis and Mary were their married and pregnant daughter Catherine and her husband Denis O’Sullivan. The couple had just married on June 10, 1851. Catherine had conceived in July, 1851 for her first and only child Jeremiah who would be born on April 11, 1852. The farm had improved considerably and Francis could now report that he had 80 acres under cultivation of which 65 had crops and 15 were pasture. The crops included wheat, oats, peas, potatoes and hay. He also produced wool, flannel, butter and pork. Livestock included two steers, four milk cows, four calves, two horses, eight sheep and four pigs. Francis was living with his family in a one storey log house. Francis was described as going to be 45 on his next birthday which probably occurred sometime later in 1852 since the census was conducted in January, 1852. According to this information Francis was probably born in 1807. Francis was still identifying himself as a member of the Church of England.

 

Ten years later in 1861 Francis is now going on 55 but his age reported to the census taker is 60 and that of Mary is 57. Erroneous reports of demographic information were common depending on the person giving the information to the census taker. In this case one of the couple’s children in the absence of the parents could have responded to the census takers questions. The family in 1861 consisted of Francis and Mary, their children Elizabeth, a spinster aged 25, twins James and John, aged 23, Maria, a spinster aged 19; Margaret aged 15; Letitia aged 10 and Ellen aged 8. The family were residing in a log house and another house was being built.

 

The 1861 census lists James and John Skillen twice, once living in the home of their parents in Wakefield and again as living separate. James is described as a Roman Catholic farmer and the only family member living in a log house with another house on the property listed as vacant. This description fits the one given for Francis and Mary. John is listed as a labourer aged 23 on his next birthday, Roman Catholic, born in Lower Canada and living with someone other than his parents, perhaps James. John is not described as being the head of a household. This discrepancy in information may have resulted from a family member other than James or John providing information that was inaccurate. What the census information does suggest is that James was farming the Skillen property in Wakefield Township with his father and perhaps living in another house on the property or he was living on the Skillen property and farming on land other than the Skillen farm. In 1861 Francis and Mary have five grandchildren from their daughter Ann and one grandson from Catherine.

 

Francis is recorded as being sixty-three and Mary fifty-eight when the next census occurs in 1871. There has been a shift in the work status of Francis. He is recorded as being a labourer rather than a farmer suggesting that he has given over the farm work to either his son or a member of the Synnott family. Francis and Mary are living alone in the Township of Wakefield. Their youngest daughter Ellen would have been nineteen in 1871. Has she died? Is she living else where and has she married? On the census form the names of Francis and Mary immediately follow those of Matthew Synnott, his wife Anne and their children who range in age from twenty to one year old. Perhaps Anne and Matthew are living in the second house on the Skillen property that was being constructed in 1861. It is understood by descendents of Matthew and Anne that he was a school teacher at Farrellton.

 

At least three major changes occurred in the Skillen family during the decade between the 1861 and 1871. James who was listed in 1861 as a farmer in Wakefield Township is no longer residing in either Wakefield or Lowe Township by 1871. James is understood by some to have moved to the USA. Some believe he may have joined the Union army during the American Civil War. He is believed to have travelled to a western territory of the USA, perhaps returning later to an eastern state and even moving to western Canada.  James’ twin brother John may have continued working on the family farm after 1861. A record survives which shows that in 1863 Francis and John entered into a contract to provide Patrick Farrell with timber. Matthew Synnott and his family seem to have moved into a second house on the Skillen farm that was reported on the 1861 census as under construction. John is shown on the 1871 census as residing in the household of John O’Rourke probably working as a labourer on the O’Rourke farm.

 

The census of 1881 does not record Francis and Mary as residing in Lowe or Wakefield Townships which suggests that were residing elsewhere at the time. Their son John and daughter-in-law Ann are living in Lowe Township and residing with John O’Rourke, Ann’s widowed sixty-eight year old father who is a farmer. John Skillen is also described as a farmer which suggests that he is working the O’Rourke farm in partnership with his father-in-law. Matthew and Anne Synnott are not enumerated because they had moved to Wisconsin before the 1881 census. Matthew and Anne Synnott seem to have left together with several of their children. Their eldest daughter Mary who had married Hugh Gorman in August 1880 remained behind with her husband and her younger sister Ann who are enumerated in Buckingham, Quebec. Ann Synnott is a servant in the Gorman home. Perhaps the move from Wakefield Township of the Synnott family precipitated Francis Skillen’s decision to sell his farm. It may be that Francis had sold the farm to his neighbour Thomas Cassidy and moved from Wakefield Township before the 1881 census. Two questions beg for answers. Was Mary Skillen alive in 1881, and if so, where was she and Francis residing at the time of the census?

 

The relationship between the Skillen family and the Catholic Church may not have been conventional given Francis’ identification with the Church of England. Francis may not have supported Mary’s efforts to raise the children as Catholics. He may have attempted to undermine Mary’s efforts to strengthen the children’s participation in the church? It is noteworthy that no baptismal record has been found for James and John, the only sons born to Francis and Mary. Might Francis have allowed the girls to be Catholics but insisted that the couple’s sons not be baptised in the Roman church?  As the end of his life drew nigh, Francis, of his own accord, or perhaps influenced by his children sought entry into the Roman church. Francis was accepted into the Catholic Church on 28 July 1889 at the age of eighty-two as shown in the register of St. Camillus parish church. It may have been around this time that Francis began living with his son John and daughter-in-law Ann O’Rourke. Perhaps the decision had something to do with the death of his wife Mary? Was Francis influenced by members of his family to embrace the Catholic faith for fear that he would be separated from his deceased wife in the after life? Another reason for the conversion may have been the need for Francis to receive the service provided in a health care setting.

 

The 1891 Census reports that Francis is a widower residing with his son John in Lowe Township. The date and location of Mary Skillen’s death is unknown. Documentation is not contained in the registry of St. Camillus church. The absence of her name from the St. Camillus church register suggests that she died somewhere far enough away to prevent her burial in St. Camillus cemetery at Farrellton. A story has been passed down to the sixth generation of the Skillen family in Canada of the burial of a Skillen family member on the Skillen farm formerly owned by John O’Rourke. No one now living is able to recall the name of the person buried. The location of the plot has been long overrun and since the farm has been sold for development there is little chance that the burial place will ever be known. The burial site was treated with respect and James Francis, the grandson of Francis, was known to pause and say a prayer when he passed it. Terry Skillen has a vague recollection of seeing the plot as a young child at one side of the field between the house and the river. It is hard to imagine that the person buried on the farm would be Mary, a long time member of the community and presumably a regular attendee of St. Camillus church. However John Skillen and Ann O’Rourke married in 1876 perhaps around the time of Mary’s death which probably occurred before Francis sold his farm. Of course, we can eliminate Mary as the person interred on the farm only by discovering the date and place of her death and burial.

 

It may have been a condition of admittance to St. Patrick’s Asylum and Orphanage that caused Francis to seek membership in the Catholic Church. Perhaps Francis had incurred a disabling stroke or he had become severely demented and required full time care that could not be provided by Ann in the Skillen home.  Francis ended his life in St. Patrick’s Orphanage and Asylum which was run by the Gray Nuns in Ottawa. He died in the asylum on March I, 1894 about the age of 87. His remains were interred in St. Camillus Roman Catholic Church cemetery on 26 April, 1894. His son John was a witness to the burial. Ironically in the end the bodily remains of Francis and Mary continued after death to be separated but hopefully in the afterlife they were reunited in spirit.

 

It was not long after Francis died that John Skillen and his wife Ann passed away. Both John and Ann died one month apart in the winter of 1897, probably from diphtheria.

 

Letitia left the family home on April 19, 1899 when at the age of twenty-one she married John Thomas Hickey who was about 23 years old. She became the wife of a farmer, a task that she knew well having become the woman of the household at age 19 following the death of her mother in 1897. The couple had 14 children. Letitia died at the age of 77 on 16 August, 1956. John Thomas was an elderly man when he died at the age of ninety.

 

Martin, just shy of his twentieth birthday at the time of his father’s death in 1897 became head of the family and is so listed in the 1901 census for Lowe Township. Martin was married and living in the family home. The census listed his occupation as that of a farmer. On January 21, 1901 Martin married Mary Ann McCaffrey. The marriage of Letitia two years before may have made the presence of a woman in the household very attractive to the three bachelors. Possibly their aunt Catherine (Skillen) O’Sullivan, her children or some of her sisters, if they were still living in Lowe Township were offering some practical support to their nephews who were living on the family farm. John Leopold, the first child of Martin and Mary Ann was born on November 15, 1901. Nine other children were to follow. In March 1901 Martin found work locally with the Canadian Pacific Railway as a labourer. He was transferred with the railroad to western Canada. The couple’s fourth child Mary Ann was born on January 28, 1908 in Lowe Township, Quebec and in July 1908 Martin was transferred with the CPR to Ingolf near Dryden in north western Ontario. He had been promoted to a section foreman. Martin continued to work for the railroad as a road master until his retirement on July 01, 1942. Martin died on October 5, 1948 at the age of 71 in Fort William, Ontario.

 

James Francis was seventeen when his parents died. He was old enough to have been actively helping his father with the farm work. The 1901 census shows that he was living with his two brothers on the farm. The census identifies Martin as the head of the household and a farmer. James is described as a labourer.  James reported earning $300.00 from his chief occupation. The occupation is not identified. It might have been from farming or from working on the railroad.  James Francis like his brother Martin was a tall man for the times, at least six feet tall. On October 14, 1905 he married Henrietta Lyons the seventeen year old daughter of Patrick Lyons and Mary Haveron. The Lyons family resided on a farm near Fieldville. James was 25. Martin and his family may no longer have been living in the farmhouse. A younger sibling, John Alexander was 21 at the time of James marriage. He probably was still living at home.  James built a two storey clapboard house next to the log house in which he and his siblings were born and raised. This log house which stood until the 1940’s may have been the original house built by John O’Rourke. After James Francis moved his new wife into the clapboard house the old log house came to be used as a place to hang meat.

 

James and Henrietta’s first child to survive was Alfred John born April 20, 1908. Nine more children included Wilfred born, 24 August,1909; James Oliver, 27 April, 1912;  Mary-Charlotte Bernice, 09 January, 1915;  Martin 27 October,1916; Doris Margaret, 18 March,1918; Donald Edward and Lola Agnes, twins born 8 October, 1922; Loretta Patricia, born 30 January, 1926 and Harold Matthew Allen, born 6 Sept. 1929. The family was bereaved with the loss of Martin who succumbed to disease on Sept.17, 1921 at the tender age of five. Less than a year later James received news from Martin in Fort William that their brother John Alexander had succumbed in July, 1922 to injuries resulting from a work accident.  John Alexander, the father of five children was only thirty nine years old.

 

 Jim and Henrietta must have been overwhelmed with grief when only a month later in August, 1922 their son Wilfred drowned. James with his three sons Alfred, Wilfred and James Oliver went to the Gatineau River to swim following Sunday mass at Farrellton. Alfred and Wilfred got caught in the current and their father was only able to reach Alfred and pull him to safety. Henrietta was pregnant for the twins Donald and Lola who were born on 8 October, only eight weeks after the death of Wilfred. The death of John Alexander brought more responsibilities for the couple when they received a request from Martin for financial assistance to help their brother’s widow Rose and her five children.

 

 John Alexander was 31 when he married Henrietta’s sister Mary in January, 1914. The couple moved to north western Ontario where John had employment with the railroad. In short order three children were born. Mary died in 1918 following the birth of her third child John. John Alexander remarried in 1920 and before his death in 1922 two more children were born. His widow Rose was without an in-come when Martin Skillen her brother-in-law made an appeal to his brother James for financial assistance. The outcome was that the three children from John’s first marriage were brought back to Quebec to reside with their grandmother Lyons, their uncle Jim and their aunt Henrietta. Young Johnnie would have been about four or five when he came to live on the farm. He was raised as a sibling of his cousins.

 

Sometime after the death of Wilfred, James Francis purchased part of the Cahill farm located to the south of his property. Sometime in the late 1930’s the family moved from their house into the Cahill house on the newly purchased land. However, the stay in the Cahill house was short and lasted only one winter. The family returned to the other house. The house on the new property was torn down and James built a new house to which he moved the family about 1940. The newly built house was to be the retirement home for James and Henrietta when one of their son’s took over the farm.

 

Bernice, the third born of the children, was the first to marry in 1934 at the age of nineteen. She married John, the son of Edward McSheffrey and Sarah Gleason. Edward was the long time mayor of the township of Lowe. John and Bernice farmed near Venosta in Lowe Township. Bernice gave birth to five children, Colleen, Phyllis, Wilbert, Ronald and Gerald. Johnny McSheffrey died of a heart attack in 1965 at the age of fifty-nine. Bernice sold the farm and moved to Ottawa. She died in Toronto in 1990 at the age seventy- five.

 

Alfred and James Oliver found employment in the nickel mines around Sudbury, Ontario. Jimmy met and married Violet Croteau in 1935. Violet was born and raised in Sudbury. Violet gave birth to six children, Janice, Nora, Shirley, Glenda, James and Gordon. Jimmy worked in the nickel mine until he incurred a stroke sometime before 1968. A second stroke rendered him quite disabled and unable to remain at home. He died in a chronic hospital in Sudbury in 1984 at the age of seventy-two. Violet died in Sudbury in 1995 in her 80th year.

 

Alfred John graduated from a Dominion Trade School in Montreal in 1930 with a certificate in Automobile Mechanics and Gasoline Engineering. He opened a repair shop at Farrellton but with the effect of the depression on the economy his business failed and he sought other sources of income. He worked on the Paugan Dam and in Lumber camps until finding a job in a nickel mine around 1934. He worked underground at Falconbridge and lived in Garson where he bought a small house. He met Mary Lachapelle at a house party given by his cousin Anthony Hickey and his wife Noreen (Meehan). Alfred and Mary married on June 19, 1939. Mary gave birth to three children, Terence Martin in 1940, Mary Alfreda in 1942 and Linda Colleen in 1946. Alfred was never satisfied with working underground as a nickel miner. To fulfill his wish to return to car repair work in 1949 he bought a garage in Carleton Place. He remained in the garage business until 1956 when he and his family moved to Arnprior. He found work in a factory and then worked as a mechanic in the local Canadian tire Store. Afterward he worked in several labour jobs. Alfred continued to work gainfully until he was into his seventies. Mary died in February 2000 at the age of 82 and Alfred died in April of the same year at the age of 92.

 

Doris, Lola and Loretta each in their turn left the farm and sought employment in Ottawa. Doris married Jim Clarke in 1942. They had no natural children and adopted Barbara in 1949. Jim worked for the post office until he retired as the result of a heart attach. Doris continued to work in retail, at Laura Secord and Simpson Sears. They built a country home on property across the highway from the new Skillen farm house and enjoyed a retirement lifestyle for some years before returning to the city of Ottawa and eventually retiring to Arnprior.

 

Lola married Marcel Vachon in 1945 just before he was to be posted to the west coast with the Royal Canadian Navy. After the war the couple moved to Montreal but lived there only a short time before returning to Ottawa. Lola gave birth to children including, Wayne, Brian Kenneth, Deborah, Gail, Jeffrey and Kevin. Lola died as the result of cancer in November, 2003.

 

Loretta acquired her high school and found employment for one year as a teacher in Lowe Township. She then followed her older sisters to Ottawa where she found employment with the federal government during the war. She met Charlie Sauvé a young war veteran who had been injured overseas resulting in the amputation of his leg. The couple were married in 1946. Loretta gave birth to two children, Gary and Judy. Charlie was employed for the Queen’s Printer until his early retirement.

 

Donald Skillen joined the RCAF during the latter years of the Second World War and he was stationed in Labrador. Upon his discharge he returned to the Gatineau valley and married Charlie Sauvé’s sister Lucille in 1951. About 1955 Donald bought the farm land excluding the new farm house from his mother. He worked as a television technician and he had a retail and repair business in Wakefield for some years. Later he found employment with the federal government. Lucille gave birth to one child, Donnie born on 28 April1956. Donald died in 1992 as the result of cancer at the age of seventy.

 

James Francis worked the family farm until his death on June 20, 1949. It was a general farm with cream from the milk cows as a regular source of income. Pigs and cattle were sold for slaughter. Hay and oats were the main crops harvested to feed the livestock. In the winter Jim and his sons would spend time in a lumber camp on his bush lot  located on Lot 11  in Wakefield Township on the east side of the Gatineau River. Trees were cut and logs hauled out of the bush to be sold. The condition of the lumber camp was very cold and uncomfortable.

 

 James Francis Skillen died from cancer caused, it is believed, by a kick from a horse which went untreated. Like so many of his generation Jim was very fearful of doctors. Hospitals were thought to be places of death rather than cure. Too late for a cure, James met his death at age 69 in a hospital in Hull, Quebec.

 

 After Jim’s death his son Harold, three month shy of his twentieth birthday assumed responsibility for the farm.  Through his sister Loretta and brother Donald, Harold met Therese Sauvé. The couple married in July 1952 when Harold was 23 and Theresa was almost eighteen. Diane, the couple’s only child was born in July 1953. Harold and Theresa lived in the old farm house originally built by his father Jim at the turn of the 20th century. Living in a farm house without plumbing and electricity in the country about one hour from the city was not a happy experience for Theresa who was still an adolescent when her child was young. She must have yearned for company during the week and looked forward to the week-end when some of Harold’s siblings especially Loretta, wife of her brother Charles and her older sister Lucille, wife of Donald Skillen might come to visit. Eventually Harold acted on Theresa’s pleas for escape from the rural setting. Through Theresa’s father who was a senior police officer with the Ottawa Police Force Harold obtained a job as a civilian employee. The couple moved to Ottawa and purchased a house in Vanier.

 

John Skillen who was raised by Jim and Henrietta Skillen from about the age of four took over the farm after his first cousin Harold moved to Ottawa. Johnny seems to have had an agreement with his aunt Henrietta that he would look after his own domestic needs. Terry Skillen spent the part of one summer working for Johnny on the farm. It must have been difficult for him to manage the farm by himself especially in the seasons when the crops had to be planted and harvested. During the summer other members of the family would assist Johnny with the harvesting. It was on one of those occasions perhaps 1955 or 1956 when Harold was helping to harvest the oats. He attempted to unbind a large sheaf of oats that was caught in the feeding mechanism of the combine by pushing on the sheaf with his foot. His foot got caught in the thrashing knives. Donald Rushed him to the Wakefield hospital but the foot was so severely injured that his leg had to be amputated below the knee.

 

Unable to make a go of the farm Johnny left for the city and found employment. Henrietta Skillen approached her son Alfred to take over the farm. Alfred was operating a small garage in Carleton Place in 1955 when asked by his mother to buy the farm. Alfred felt obligated to help his mother and since the economy of Carleton Place was in decline and the garage business was not doing well he was tempted to buy the farm. He was 47 at the time and still physically able to do a hard day’s work. However, after her childhood experience of living on a farm homestead in northern Ontario and after residing for several years in a town, his wife Mary was not supportive of moving the family to a rural farm setting. Henrietta then turned to Alfred’s younger brother, Donald who was operating a television sales and repair business in Wakefield. He agreed to purchase the farm and arrangements were made for him to make annual payments to his mother. Donald was still making payments to Henrietta Skillen when she died in 1966.  Donald did not work the farm. He rented out the pasture land for grazing of cattle.

 

 After Johnny Skillen moved to Ottawa he met a wonderful woman in the person of Irene Hamel and they married. He was well cared for by his dedicated and loving wife. It was a sad turn of events when Irene died from cancer. Johnny worked for the City of Ottawa as a labourer. After his wife’s death he rented a room from his first cousin, Doris Clarke who with her husband Jim owned a three story house on Fairmont Avenue in Ottawa. Johnny was still working for the city and living at Fairmont Ave. when he died of a massive heart attack in September, 1976.

 

Donnie Skillen married Susan Jacqueline Brown on 7 December 1976. After their marriage Donnie and Sue moved into the old Skillen farm house. Donald built a cottage on the Gatineau River behind the house. Don and Sue had their first child in July 1979. Other children followed in 1986, 1990 and 1993.  After the death of Donald Skillen in 1992 his son Donnie continued to live with his wife Susan and their children in the old Skillen farm house. Donald’s widow, Lucille sold the farm property to a land developer and moved to Ottawa. Her son Don and daughter-in-law Sue remained in the farm house which Donnie received as a share of his father’s will until their marital separation sometime before 1999. After the marital separation Donnie rented out the farm house with instructions that rent be paid to his estranged wife Sue and he left the Gatineau valley. He moved to Peterborough for a time but at this time in January 2008 his whereabouts are unknown. Property taxes are in arrears and the municipality has placed the matter with a lawyer. Sue obtained a divorce in July 1999 and married William John Mahon in 2002. The four children of Don and Sue are the only Skillen presence left in the Gatineau valley. The family reside in Wakefield where the children’s step father is the proprietor of Billy’s Restaurant.

 

 The last visible sign of the Skillen presence in the Gatineau valley disappeared during the summer 2007 when the old farm house was torn down following purchase of the property for tax arrears. Terry Skillen had a composite of the Skillen farm digitally constructed from several old photographs which can be seen on the opening page of this web site. 

 

Terence Martin Skillen

Carleton Place, Ontario

Revised: 5 Jan. 2008