An Historical Sketch of St Paul’s United Church of Orillia, Ontario
The origin of St Paul’s Church dates back to the Methodist Mission among the First Nation’s peoples of “The Narrows”, 36 years before the town of Orillia was incorporated. In 1831 the Methodist Mission located on Snake Island at the south end of Lake Simcoe, was moved to “The Narrows” (the original name of the village which is now the City of Orillia). The Mission House was located on the south side of Mississauga Street, between Matchedash and Peter Streets. Associated with the Mission House there was a school, some duplex housing and a home for Chief Yellowhead. Statistics recorded at the time show that the active adult members of the church were 54 people of European descent and 203 First Nations People.
In the late 1830’s the First Nations people were “persuaded” to move to a new location on the east side of Lake Koochecheng (as it was spelled in those days) at Rama. The town of Orillia grew substantially, with the people of European descent becoming the predominant population. The Methodist congregation grew and in 1857 a lot 100 feet by 50 feet on the west side of Peter Street between Mississauga and Colborne (opposite the Sam Steele Building) was donated by Andrew Moffatt, and a frame church building was erected and dedicated on this site February 13th, 1859. It would, however, not take long for the congregation to outgrow this facility. In 1864 funds were raised to purchase a ½ acre lot at the north-east corner of Peter and Coldwater Streets (for $300), the present site of St Paul’s United Church. By March of 1866, on the back portion of this lot, where the church hall now stands, a substantial brick parsonage was built.
In 1865, the church board made application to sell the original property on the West side of Peter Street with the intention of moving the Frame Church to the Peter and Coldwater location. As it turned out, both the property and the building were sold, and the proceeds were used to help fund a much more ambitious building – The Brick Church. The Brick Church was built at a cost of $5000 and was opened on January 19th, 1870. It boasted seats, pulpit, five chandeliers, communion rail, gallery, 60 by 40 foot basement, a hot air heating system, and a 100 foot high spire.
In the years to follow, the congregation grew and prospered. In 1890, The Orillia Methodist Church congregation was the largest in Orillia, with 245 active families. Additions and improvements were made to the church building, adding: a 1200 pipe Edward Lye & Sons organ, at a cost of $2000; a 25 foot by 75 foot section to the front of the sanctuary; and three new entrances, bringing the seating capacity to an estimated 1000.
By 1911, the Sabbath School was bursting its seams. This necessitated the construction of the two storey church hall, with basement. It was erected to the North of the church, on the site of the parsonage. At the same time, a choir room 18 by 24 feet was built between the hall and the church. The project was dedicated on March 5th, 1911.
In the early 1900’s, the four major Protestant church bodies, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalists were talking seriously about church union. When the 1925 union (without the Anglicans) was being acted upon in Orillia, where Presbyterian and Methodist churches were both healthy, strong and within a block of each other, the advantages of church Union were not obvious. None-the-less, on February 3rd, 1925, the board of Orillia Methodist Church gave unanimous approval to Union. Up the street at the Orillia Presbyterian Church it was quite different. The Presbyterian Church in Canada had made provision for members to vote on the deal. At the Orillia Presbyterian Church, when the votes were counted there were 732 against and 184 in favour of Union. Of course, the Methodist congregation welcomed the Unionists from the Presbyterian congregation with open arms, thus increasing the size of the new St Paul’s United Church. More facilities were needed and the basement of the Church Hall was completed, adding a kitchen, a banquet hall and three new Sunday School class rooms.
Further major modifications to the church structure were made in the 1950’s. Unfortunately the attractive spire was lost, after being damaged by a windstorm in 1950. The one story addition at the Coldwater-street end of the church provided a much larger narthex. Unfortunately, due to the widening of Coldwater Street to four lanes, and the added Narthex, the beautiful maple trees that adorned the front of the Church were lost! In 1955, a major fund raising campaign was initiated under the direction of the Wells Fund Raising Organization. It was a successful campaign; having a target of $140,000 with pledges exceeding $205,000. The following year (1956) a new 3-manual Casavant organ was purchased. Accompanying the installation of the new organ was a major renovation of the church sanctuary.
Maintaining our historical church structure continues as a work in progress. In the early 1980s renovations were done which provided the Muskoka Resource Centre, now the St Paul’s Library. In the middle 1990s, major renovations of the sanctuary were completed. This provided a movable organ console, allowing the chancel area to be a more flexible space. Much improved chancel lighting and major upgrades to the sound system were also done at this time. In 2002 the office area was completely renovated, providing comfortable office space for clergy and administration staff. Access to the building was also greatly enhanced at this time with the addition of a wheel chair accessible elevator which services each of the church levels.
Music has always been a highlight of Worship at St Paul’s. It is interesting to note that the Lightfoot Family were members of the congregation. In the early 1950s, Gordon Lightfoot was singing in the Youth Choir. While in high school at Orillia District Collegiate Institute (ODCI) Gordon teamed up with Terry Whalen from Washago to begin his career as one of Canada’s foremost singer-songwriters.
Leslie Frost’s parents, William Sword Frost and Margaret Jane Barker, were active members of this congregation. To honour the memory of their parents, Leslie and his brothers commissioned the installation of a magnificent stained glass four panel window, depicting The Road to Emmaeus. This window adorns the west Transept of St. Paul’s United Church.
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