Life was not easy in the early years, but a fair number of Scottish immigrants settled in Eastern Ontario throughout the 19th century. Presbyterian churches began in Martintown (1811), Kirk Hill (1820), Vankleek Hill (1824), Maxville (1826), Dunvegan (1838), Moose Creek (1838), and Finch (1840).
The Gravel Hill story begins in 1862 with the arrival of Joshua Fraser in the area. He worked out of Roxborough. Every Sunday morning, he would hold a worship service; the afternoons saw him leading Sabbath School; and weekdays saw him visiting as much as he could. He was very successful in his ministry. Attendance at Sunday worship averaged 150 people; at Sabbath School, attendance increased to 80; and he visited about 50 families.
Remember - all this happened before a church had even been built! Mr. Fraser started hold meetings in the school house in the area but it soon proved to be too small, so services were moved to a large barn. That worked for the summer, but when fall came, the barn was needed for storing crops, and they were forced to go back to the school. Obviously, something more was needed.
John and Elizabeth Montgomery donated land for a church building and cemetery. The deed is dated December 31, 1862 and states "In the name of the trustees of the congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland in Roxborough Township." This marks the official beginning of the St. James' Presbyterian congregation in Gravel Hill but it would be another year before the church was actually built.
In the summer of 1863, building the Gravel Hill church building began. It was finished enough by September 1863 for the first service to be held there. It took a few more years, however, before the inside of St. James' Presbyterian Church was finished.
Those first few years, the St. James' congregation was served by student ministers, lay preachers and travelling missionaries.
No records exist of ministers serving the congregation in those early years. The next record we find comes from 1880.
In 1880, the Rev. Charles McLean was hired to serve both Knox Presbyterian Church in the Sixth Concession of Roxborough and St. James' in Gravel Hill. The first recorded Communion Service was in 1881. The Rev. C. McLean left in 1882.
He was followed by Mr. D. McLean, a missionary, who served the 2 cocngregations from 1883-1884.
After he left, the Rev. John McKenzie was inducted at Knox in Roxborough in 1884, and served both congregations until he left in 1885.
Mr. D. McLean returned to the area after graduating and ordination. Now the Rev. D. McLean, he served as minister for the two congregations for one year (1886).
The Gravel Hill congregation then petitioned Presbytery to join with the Apple Hill congregation. The petition was granted and, in 1887, the Rev. D.D. MacLennan served as minister to the two congregation until 1903. The Apple Hill church is now known as Zion United.
After the Rev. MacLennan retired, the Gravel Hill congregation broke with Apple Hill and joined with St. Andrew's in Avonmore. The Rev. George Weir became their minister. However, he left in 1905.
The next minister was the Rev. Hector N. MacLean, a very evangelical minister. Inducted in 1905, the Rev. MacLean served three congregations: St. Andrew's (Avonmore), St. James' (Gravel Hill) and St. Andrew's (Monkland).
Preaching three services on Sunday, plus holding various prayer meetings and other services through the week, plus reaching out into the communities proved to be too much - particularly as the congregations were growing. In fact, one communion service in Avonmore was attended by 162 communicants. After a year, the Rev. MacLean insisted that Gravel Hill and Monkland be split from Avonmore and become a separate charge.
In 1906, the Rev. James Hastie, became minister of the two congregations (Gravel Hill and Monkland). He stayed until 1908.