It’s not been a church for more than five decades, but passersby can still see hints of a Floradale building’s original use. Inside, there are more telltale signs, including a wall mural that was one of the earliest works by Cole Bowman, an internationally famous artist who grew up in Floradale and later lived in Elmira.
The long-time owner of the Floradale Road location, which had been converted for residential use in the early 1970s, is now preparing to move out. Among the many items that went up for auction was a painting of The Good Shepherd, a portion of wall mural that Carroll Norris cut out when she moved in more than 50 years ago, keeping the lath-and-plaster portion tucked away ever since.
Some 30 years ago, Bowman himself came by to see the rescued painting. During the visit, he told Norris that it was his first-ever commissioned work, completed when he was still a teen.
“He came here before his wife died. He and his wife came here one day, and he asked me about the painting,” said Norris.
“It was just sitting behind a buffet that had been there for years when [Cole] came out, and he told me that that was his first commissioned painting. He said he was 17 years old, and he had never before been paid for a painting.”
Bowman painted the image directly onto the wall. Norris said when the church building was first renovated to become two apartments in the 1970s, the bottom half of Bowman’s Good Shepherd was removed. When Norris took ownership and did some renovating of her own, she took out the part of the wall the painting was on in order to preserve it.
She tried to sell it or give it to a historical society, but no one showed interest, so it sat behind a buffet table for decades.
“It’s on wooden slats and plaster, so it’s not the lightest thing in the world to handle. It’s very heavy.”
The land for the church was purchased in 1895 from Elizabeth Quickfall, whose husband, Thomas Quickfall, operated a flour and grist mill in Floradale. The church building was erected soon after, and improvements like additional building supports or the pouring of a concrete floor in the basement were added over time.
The church was home to a congregation that flourished until the 1960s. The final service was held in 1968.
Then, the building was sold to Alvin Beisel, who converted it into an apartment building for two families.
Norris and her husband bought the property in 1972, and moved into it from St. Jacobs a year later. She raised her family in the home and lived in it ever since. But now, her current husband and herself are getting older and dealing with health issues.
“I’m 75. My husband is 80, and has major medical problems. We are unable to do the work anymore. It requires a lot of work. There’s grass cutting, there’s gardens, there’s upkeep to the house.”
She says she did her best to keep parts of the church intact over the years, the likes of retaining the original doors with their original hardware, and installing a church window in the upstairs hallway.
“I’m a little sad about moving, for sure. I’ve been in this town for 51 years. I’ve lived here for that long,” she said.
Cole Bowman was born in the Muskoka area, grew up in Floradale and was a member of the Floradale church.
Cole’s son, Terry Bowman, says his father grew up playing hockey on the Floradale Dam and had a love and talent for art from an early age. By 15 years of age, he ran his own sign shop.
The sign shop went well, then Cole decided to dedicate himself to art full-time. Terry was about seven-years-old at that point.
To stop a profitable business and become a full-time artist while supporting a family was, Terry admits, a risky move. “That was a tough call,” he said.
“We were poor as church mice. My mom was able to stretch a meal and make it work. We never went hungry. We were always warm and clothed properly. I’m sure that there were times when [my mom] wondered whether this was a proper choice. When he had the sign-writing business he was doing very well, so it was a major economical step backwards to do what he loved to do.”
The Bowman family lived in an apartment above Cole’s mother’s home for a few years, and Cole would rent out various studios in Elmira to work from. Later the family built a home on Bluebird Place in Elmira, and “he lived there for 40 years until he died,” he said.
He says he inherited his work ethic from both his parents.
Eventually Cole’s work caught the attention of some major department stores, and he gained international attention.
“Flora McCrae Eaton (Lady Eaton), wife of Eaton department stores president Sir John Craig Eaton, contacted Cole and requested that Cole sell his paintings at Eaton stores across Canada. Four times a year, Cole travelled to Ottawa for showings of his work,” said Del Gingrich, a local historian who had mutual friends with Cole.
“A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer from the renowned Group of Seven painters dropped by to view and admire Cole’s work,” he said.
Norris said she had cousins who came to visit her from England who knew of Cole Bowman.
Cole’s pieces typically featured rural, northern and ocean scenes, said Terry. He painted with oil paint, oil brush and palette knife and painted with a style of impressionistic realism. But he also painted a number of religious paintings.
“Over the years he did many different heads of Christ that are in different churches, along with a lot of full wall murals, religious wall murals at different churches all over the place. There’s one at the Trinity Church in Elmira, he did one at St. James Lutheran Church, so he did a lot of those.”
For Norris, saving a piece of Bowman’s history is a priority as she gets ready to move out of the place at month’s end.
“You need to save some of the history in this region. You know, things get torn down and eliminated,” she said.