An abbreviated version of this article appears in the November-December issue of Lake Simcoe Living Magazine. For the complete story, please read on...
By Val Pring
The Lake Simcoe area’s historic churches were built by pioneering men and women who believed in the importance of community, structure, a place to worship and giving thanks. As their legacy, they leave a shoreline graced with these buildings. Most are still functional today, treasures of history and culture waiting to be explored and appreciated — perhaps this holiday season.
Christ Church, Roches Point
The war of 1812 between Upper Canada and the United States brought attention to the vulnerability of York (now Toronto) from attack. The possibility of moving parliament and business to a more secure location was the buzz of the capitol for many years. In 1822, Sir Peregrine Maitland, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, purchased 80 hectares (200 acres) at Roches Point, just north of Keswick in Georgina, from James Roche. After having it surveyed for a town in 1823, he pushed to have it become the new capital city of Canada.
Unfortunately for Sir Peregrine, no one wanted to move — even though Roches Point was considered to be a much safer site. Whether the land was bought on future speculation, it is hard to say. However, in the years that followed the war, wealthy English immigrants came to the eastern shores of Lake Simcoe, establishing country estates that were considered vast properties for their time.
Rev. Walter Stennett was born in 1825. He spent many of his summers visiting his parents, who had a farm at Roches Point, and conducted church services in neighbour’s barns.
Not only was this man a church minister, but in 1857 he became principal at Upper Canada College in Toronto — the first graduate from the college to be given this position. The work load and stress may have been too much for him, because he took an early retirement following a nervous breakdown. After recuperating at his parent’s farm in Roches Point, Rev. Stennett decided to build a church. His parents generously donated the land, and in early 1863, Christ’s Church at Roches Point was completed. On Jan. 1, 2013, the church celebrates 150 years of worship within its walls.
Visiting this photogenic building on Turner Road is like stepping back in time. With its foot-and-a-half-thick fieldstone walls, original diamond-cut stained glass windows and arched doorways, Christ’s Church portrays a country cottage charm that is so completely unique, nothing in the area can match it. Walking through the church grounds is reminiscent of rural England. Headstones face east toward the back of the church, where there is a beautiful stained glass window. Above it sits a lonely bell on top of the cedar shingle roof. Still functional, a rope from the bell passes through the roof and dangles against the inside rear wall, waiting to call parishioners to service. A white picket fence that separates the church grounds from the road radiates country charm.
Sharon Temple, Sharon
In 1851 the village of Sharon (formally Hope) was the most prosperous community in all of Upper Canada. This was mainly due to the Children of Peace. Creators of the ornate Sharon Temple, these “plain folk” Quakers can be attributed to starting the first shelter for the homeless, forming the first civilian band in the country, building the first organ in Ontario, starting the first co-operative, farmers storehouse, and the first credit union! This is quite an accomplishment, for a renegade group of Quakers who believed in equality, peace and social justice.
The Sharon Temple is centrally located on the west side of Leslie in Sharon. It was constructed between 1825 and 1831 to represent Solomon’s Temple, and wasn’t actually used as a building for prayer. Instead it was used once a month to collect money and goods for the poor. Religious services were held weekly at two other meeting houses in the village. This spectacular historic building is a must to see! During the first weekend in September, they annually illuminate all the windows in the temple with a candle lighting ceremony. This traditional popular event attracts many visitors and tourists.
As a masterpiece of construction, this stunning three tier square building, with four symmetrical internal pillars, is laced with symbolism. Each tier represents a part of the Trinity, and on each pillar is scribed one of the four virtues - Love, Hope, Faith and Charity. Representing Jacob’s Ladder, there is a simple, yet elegant curving staircase that leads to the second story, which housed the band.
Sharon Temple is now a National Historic Site and Museum. It is also a National Peace Site. It is open to visitors from mid May to mid October.
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Sutton
In days gone by, it was a common practice to move buildings. It was often cheaper in a time when construction materials were rare, and every log had to be cleaned and cut using simple tools. The movement of a building became a community event. People helped each other, with no monetary expectations. Buildings were usually rolled on logs either as a whole or in sections, over land and ice. And, so it was for two churches in Georgina, St. Andrews Presbyterian on Dalton Road, Sutton, and St. Paul’s Jersey Church on the Queensway South, Keswick.
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church was originally constructed in 1864 on the 6th line in Innisfil Township. It replaced a little log church that had stood there for 20 years. This new church served the community well until the early 1900s, but by the summer 1927 it was for sale. Coincidentally, a small group of Presbyterians in Sutton needed a building and this frame construction fitted their needs perfectly. After purchasing the building, they began the laborious task of taking it apart. Through the autumn, members of the congregation travelled daily around Cook Bay to dismantle the church, labelling and numbering each piece under the guidance of a builder. After the lake froze, they began the gruelling task of moving the material. At 5:30 a.m., each able man from the congregation would travel with team and sleigh to Roches Point, then across the ice to Big Cedar Point, turning in a southerly direction towards the 6th line, and then up to Hwy. 11 to pick up pieces of the church. Resting to eat cold sandwiches and drink lukewarm tea, they kept a constant eye on the weather. With rejuvenated horses and heavy loads they began their trek back across the ice. So heavy laden were the loads that the team of horses could only walk, with their riders tramping beside them. Exhausted, the men would arrive at the site of the new church, unload the timber, and take the horses back to their stables, only to start again the next morning. For the men of the church it was a testament of their devotion and one to be admired. The church was then reconstructed on the new site at 20858 Dalton Rd.
Around the same time, Toronto Evening Telegram editor Irving Robertson, the son of Victorian tycoon John Ross Robertson, was building a huge stone house at the end of Jackson's Point for his bride. He finished St. Andrews Church in granite, to match his house. Enough work was finished in time for his wedding — the first wedding to be held in the relocated church — although the wedding guests had to stand up for the ceremony. The workmen had run out of time and the pews were not installed.
Cottage Shul, Georgina
Jackson’s Point in Georgina is well known as Ontario’s first cottage country. However, very few people know is that it is also home to the first Hebrew Community Centre Synagogue in the area. Constructed at a time when people were not very tolerant toward different cultures and religious beliefs, the Jewish people in Georgina forged ahead and built a summer synagogue named Cottage Shul. This humble little one-storey building has had two facelifts since its conception in 1948. The first renovations in the mid 1980s included the introduction of indoor washrooms. The second renovations took place in more recently, according to an article in 2006 in the Canadian Jewish News. Two large donations were made toward the $75,000 need to spruce up the exterior and interior of the building. Now with its fresh makeover, this little synagogue is solid on its foundation. During improvements to the Ark, kitchen, interior doors, lighting and wood structure, carpenters took great care in keeping the original cottage charm. This simple grey stone building draws little attention in Georgina, but continues to a valued part of the town’s history.
African Methodist Episcopal Church,
St. Thomas Anglican Church of Shanty Bay and the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oro-Medonte Township are two wonderful churches well worth a visit. They are both historically rich sites.
The picturesque village of Shanty Bay is located on the shores of Lake Simcoe, approximately five kilometres northeast of Barrie. A historically significant location, Shanty Bay was the most northern and oldest community of free black people who had used the Underground Railroad in Upper Canada. Black refugees came to this area in two separate time periods. The first group, known as the “Company of Coloured Men,” fought alongside the British in the War of 1812 under the command of Capt. Robert Runchey.
The second group came between 1830 and 1850 and became home to twenty-four Black African Canadians who came from the Northern United States. Many of these families settled on Wilberforce Street which runs north of Shanty Bay. Recognized by the government as citizens, the men of these families continued to protect Upper Canada from invasion. Life was hard for these early pioneering families, and yet they forged a community. They were proud people who lived in small shacks and farmed for food. In 1849 they raised enough money to build a simple wooden church which stands at the corner of Old Barrie Road and 3rd line in Oro-Medonte. This active historical church is a testament to the struggle of Black Canadian pioneers.
Christ Church, Holland Landing
The village of Holland Landing is located half way between Newmarket and Bradford. It has been well known for centuries to First Nations people as a site for embarkation due to its proximity to the north end of the Rouge-Holland and Humber Holland portages. It also became a post for fur traders. In 1802 its first settler, Joseph Johnson built a large log house in the Upper Landing. An influx of settlers joined Johnson in 1820 and the village took life. By 1843 the people of the village longed for their own Anglican church.
In an act of generosity, a parcel of land on the corner of Peter and School Street was donated by Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson, and Christ Church was erected. Now 165 years later, this solid-brick, gothic-style church still stands on the top of a hill as a beacon of strength to its parishioners. Surrounded by a cemetery on three sides, this church holds a fabulous view of Holland Landing. Upon viewing, note its three story bell tower which features classic stained glass lancet windows. The bell in the tower was cast in Troy, New York in 1847. Over the centuries it has been used to not only call parishioners to service, but as an alarm to call volunteers to help with fires and other types of emergencies. Still used to this day the clapper is visibly flattened from wear.
Inside the church there is a wooden glass case displaying the contents of a time capsule discovered in 1996, which would have been placed during construction. Behind the altar in the sanctuary, there are three large stained glass windows. Prior to 1900 the majority of people could not read, stained glass windows depicting stories were used as teaching tools. In most churches these windows, which would have been costly, were donated by wealthy church members. At Christ Church, these windows were purchased by the membership as a whole, illustrating the fellowship and dedication of the congregation. Also unique to this church is the balcony. It still contains the original pew boxes from 1843. In pioneering years, it was common practice for the Anglican Church to raise funds for operational expenses through “rent a pew”. Families would rent a pew for an entire year and would be entitled to sit on the main level. Less fortunate families would be in the balcony. Towards the end of the 1800’s this practice was abolished, and all people were considered equal. Not only did it symbolize a change in members’ attitudes towards the church, but possibly towards society as a whole. Christ Church is a wonderful church and the pride of Holland Landing.
St. Thomas Anglican Church
Shanty Bay, Oro-Medonte
Colonel O’Brien and his wife Mary (Gapper) moved to Shanty Bay in 1832 after acquiring a land grant of one thousand acres. They allotted forty acres to be used for a church, rectory and parochial school. Upon arrival, Mrs. O’Brien named the village Shanty Bay after noting the numerous shacks from Black patriot settlers. After becoming well established, the O’Brien’s began the task of funding raising sufficient money to build a church located on Ridge Road. Word was sent to England and four hundred pounds was raised to build a simple Romanesque style building. In 1838 they laid the first cornerstone.
Apart from being a very pretty church, St. Thomas is unique because of its method of construction. Built by local settlers using old English methods, they built the church out of clay and straw, a method known as “rammed earth”. The clay and straw were put into a large pit and then trampled on by oxen until smooth. People in Devonshire England called this process "quatting." The mix is then put into forms to dry, similar to a poured concrete basement. Records indicate it took a long time to build, especially when you consider that the walls are three feet thick! The church walls were then sealed with plaster to protect them from getting wet. Inside the church, even the floor is unique. It rests on floating timbers that are not attached to the walls. Not only does this allow for heaving, it makes for simple inexpensive repair. This is one of the few remaining buildings in Ontario made using the ‘rammed earth’ method. St. Thomas Anglican Church is a delightful building and definitely one of Lake Simcoe’s hidden treasures.
St. Columbkille Catholic Church,
St. Columbkille Catholic Church in Uptergrove, south of Orillia on Hwy 12, is the oldest, most northern parish in the Toronto diocese. This grand building stands majestically on raised land far back from the road on the east side of the highway. In 2005, St. Columbkille celebrated 150 years as a parish and 100 years in the present building. In the early 1800s, immigrants, mostly Irish and Scottish, came to the northeastern shores of Lake Simcoe in hopes of a better life. With no church building available, they held mass at each others’ houses. In 1855, a decree to establish a parish was authorized. Not long after, the first rectory was built. The original church has since been replaced by the present building.
When visiting this impressive building, one's eyes are drawn to the long driveway leading to the church. It is easy to imagine horses and wagons carrying patrons to mass. The last of the long shed at the back of the property where the horses were fed and housed during service was torn down in the 1940s.
Inside the church, the original carved benches and steeple bell are still in use. Looking upward, there are no pillars supporting the ceiling in the nave of the church. This a rare style of architecture. Instead, timbers that have been hand hewn support the arched ceiling, giving the church a spectacularly airy feeling. Breaking the light into a spectrum of colour, there are two fantastic stained glass rose windows created by Henry St. George. Anyone visiting St. Columbkille can only marvel at the sheer size of such a church in a rural setting.
St. Georges Anglican Church, Sibbald Point
St George’s Anglican Church was built in 1876 on Hedge Road at Sibbald Point, just outside Sutton. This majestic building stands high on the bluff at Sibbald Point, overlooking Lake Simcoe. From a stone bench outside the church, you can gaze towards the northwest and feel the vastness of Lake Simcoe. It is no wonder that Susan Sibbald chose this location for a church.
Constructed as a tribute to Susan Sibbald by her three devoted sons, Capt. Thomas, Hugh, and Dr. Frank Sibbald, this stunningly beautiful church was built to stand the test of time. Every granite stone was hand-picked and checked for iron deposits by Capt. Sibbald. So keen was his eye for perfection that of the whole church, only one stone was missed; located on the west wall, it now weeps brown with rust. A navy man to the core, he modelled his style of leadership after life at sea. Capt. Thomas demanded his workers salute when greeting him, and respond to his requests with “Aye, aye, sir.” Each morning as the eighth bell tolled, Capt. Thomas would administer to his work crew a traditional daily ration of rum, followed by a toast to Queen Victoria — pure navy style!
The strength that Susan Sibbald possessed is echoed in the design and beauty of St. Georges Church. A truly remarkable woman, she was born to upper-class society and lived in a stately manor with her husband in Scotland. She was a forward thinking woman for her time being well educated and travelled. Although quite liberated in many of her views, she was still privy to the social protocols that befit her stature in society. In 1835, at age 52, she came to Orillia to check up on her two sons, whom she had heard through gossip were living in a tavern. Susan’s sons were in Orillia studying horticultural methods for Upper Canada. After satisfying her worries that her sons weren’t becoming victims of alcohol, she took a boat ride around the lake in hopes of purchasing property. It was then that she came upon Penn Rains, located at the current site of Sibbald Point Provincial Park. This small, one-storey building surrounded by wilderness overwhelmed her with its beauty. With visions of transforming it into a gentile working farm, she purchased the property. By the time she returned to Scotland, her husband had passed away, so she sold her estate and brought her children and possessions to start a new life in Upper Canada.
As a devoted Christian, one of her first priorities was to establish a church and school. Using all her wealthy influential contacts, Susan Sibbald raised money from England to create a church made from logs with plaster interior walls. The church building served the needs of the pioneering community that surrounded it. Its construction was a testimony to the determination and discipline of Susan Sibbald
After her death, the old log church was moved on rollers to a spot closer to the lake while St. George’s was being built as a way to ensure the continuation of church services. The beautiful, stained glass windows from behind the alter — designed and painted in exquisite detail by the daughters of Gov. John Graves Simcoe — were carefully moved from the log church and placed in St. George’s. Susan’s granddaughter, who married Rev. George Everest, a descendant of Sir George Everest (famous for surveying Mt. Everest), donated endless hours carving many of the decorative wooden wild grape motifs inside the church. The carvings represent the abundance of wild grapes found growing on the grounds. In the grave yard, great Canadian writers Mazo de la Roche and Stephen Leacock are laid to rest.