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October 2, 2022

6/21/2012 6:04:00 PM
Welsh events keep heritage alive
Jean Berns Jones

"Deuwch, Canwn I'r Arlwydd ("Come Sing to the Lord") was the message the afternoon of June 10th at Peniel Welsh Presbyterian Church in rural Rewey.
The 13th annual Gymanfa Ganu ("Festival of Sacred Song") was underway. As usual, people of Welsh descent came from near and far to join their voices in the language of their ancestors. One family walked to the church from their house just down the road, while others traveled from various states, and sometimes even from Wales.
In the renowned Welsh musical tradition, sopranos, tenors, basses and baritones blended in the ancient hymns as their harmonies flowed onto the green lawns outside.
The setting was not much changed from about 1870 when the small, frame church was new and immigrants held prayer services in their native language, reading from Bibles and songbooks printed in Welsh.
The director June 10th was Geraint Wilkes of Hartland, a musician who was born in Aberystswyth Wales. He has appeared with the Milwaukee Opera Company, Irish Fest, the Holiday FolkFair, and at many Celtic gatherings in Milwaukee. He taught courses in Welsh culture and lore at UW-Milwaukee.
Wilkes became a Wisconsin resident in 1990. He has directed Gymanfa Ganu from New York to California and throughout the Midwest, including the Wisconsin State event in 2002 and the National Gymanfa in 1997.
The Peniel Church event is one of eight Welsh musical gatherings that will be held this year at various sites in Wisconsin. The National Gymanfa Ganu and North American Festival of Wales will be held August 30-September 2 in Scranton, PA.
The program included special music by folk harpist Anne Lemmenes, a seasoned performer at many Gymanfa Ganu. Organist was Barb Brown of Mt. Horeb. Prayers were offered by Rev. John Corbin of Reedsburg.
The Rewey event included cookies and lemonade served after the singing by members of the Peniel Church. One of the servers is Janice Lee who grew up in the Welsh Settlement in the valley south of Peniel School.
"I can remember men standing and singing in quartets in the front of the church, back in my childhood," she said. Lee and her family, along with some others, have maintained the building.
A few years ago it received a new steel roof to stop the leaking that plagued it for years. Recently the church and the social hall have been joined by a hallway which includes a restroom. Much of the work was done with donated labor.
The Welsh Settlement was a 70 square mile area located in the southern part of the Town of Mifflin, Iowa County. It extended almost to Mifflin Village on the north, into the Town of Linden to the east, into Lafayette County on the south, and west almost to the later Village of Rewey.
In the late 1830's and early 1840's, immigrants came from Wales and chose to settle in this locality where, it is said, the first Welshman named William Owens built his cabin near the Pecatonica River. Due to the common language, other Welsh people were drawn to settle near them.
It is recorded that John and William Davies headed west from Pennsylvania, coming by route of the Ohio River to Galena, ILL, then overland up to Dodgeville. They then walked southwest to this point between the two branches of the Pecatonica River. They were greeted by another Welsh immigrant, William Jones, who had already settled here.
The men were impressed with the location because the high hills and fertile valleys held a close resemblance to their homeland. They appreciated the available fresh water of the many springs, the rivers for transportation, the abundance of the strong trees for building, and ore deposits near the surface.
Being religious people, the settlers began holding worship services in cabin homes where the host would lead the service. The growing congregation needed even larger cabins. The first meeting to establish a permanent church organization was in 1847 at the Cabin of William Jones. It was named The Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church with John Davies as pastor.
In 1848 there were 50 members and a small chapel was built north of the present location on the rim of a hill. The frame structure measured 20 x 28 feet and cost $300. The name chosen was Peniel, meaning "Face of God."
In 1868, it was resolved to build a new frame structure church, 31 x 45 feet at the cost of $5,000. It was dedicated in 1869 and the name remained Peniel Church. The older building was moved to the south and used as a hall.
Peniel Church was built facing north, with one double door entrance. In the vestry were the east and west doors for entrance to either side of the worship center. The center aisle of pews had a divider down the middle, due to the practice that ladies sat on a separate side of the room from the men.
Two large wood stoves were just inside the doors on the north. Their stove pipes ran overhead the full length of the room and made a sharp turn into separate chimneys, which formed a pillmaster behind the pulpit. Kerosene wall lamps on wrought iron hangers with reflectors lined the wall. One was next to each of the four tall windows on both sides of the room.
The church lawn was enclosed in a white picket fence. The people walked or came by buggy or wagon. In winter, they used cutters or bobsleds. The horses were unhitched and tied about the church yard, and in the winter they were blanketed for protection.
The Welsh were known for their love of singing. They felt that singing gave them expression of religion, harmony and togetherness. It is recorded that singing classes were held by Professor E.C. Davies as early as 1892, and they were held at different times during the history of the church.
One Welshman, the late Frank Jones who loved to sing in his deep bass voice, compared it to the movie, "How Green Was My Valley." He recalled that in the settlement, the surrounding echo of the hills rang with Welsh singing.

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