As old as Canada, Oshawa’s Simcoe Street United Church to hold final sermon April 14

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Published March 14, 2024 at 7:36 pm

The sanctuary of Simcoe Street United Church in Oshawa. Photo Robert Bell

The future of Oshawa’s oldest church, which will hold its final service April 14, is uncertain, with its fate now in the hands of the development arm of the United Church of Canada.

Built in 1867 by architects Gundry & Langley in the Gothic revival style, Simcoe Street United Church and its iconic steeple has been welcoming the community from its downtown home at Simcoe and Bagot as long as Canada has been a nation – longer if you consider the original Methodist congregation worshipped at another building erected on nearby King Street in 1817, just 22 years after Oshawa forerunner Skea Corners was founded.

Declining membership – down 40 per cent since the onset of the pandemic – and a mounting cash flow exacerbated by a recently completed (and expensive) steeple rebuild forced the church to cut their losses, with most of the congregation moving to Kingsview United Church following the April 14 service.

“For some folks the leaving of the building is hard to describe,” said Interim Intentional Minister Daryl Webber, who arrived in Oshawa in 2022. “It is a moment when something of the link is broken and the community that was formed, nurtured, attended to for so long is withering away. It is sad. And for the folks who have had their own history here of fun or some grace given to them so they might walk a good path, they are sad too.”

Webber believes congregation members are “ready to move on” after a stressful pandemic.

“Bills were mounting. The building was needing more maintenance. The financial crisis and a volunteer crisis was so severe that it caused a great weight on a few leaders and it was just too much.”

The building will be handed over to the United Property Resource Corp. (UPRC), the property management team of the United Church, which is building a nationwide portfolio of mixed-income rental housing and gathering spaces, with an aim to create homes for 34,000 people in the next 15 years.

UPRC’s development arm, Kindred Works, has nine projects already approved as of last summer in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton and St. Catharines. They’ve also applied to add low-rise development on the site of Dunbarton-Fairport United Church (built in 1877), with 30 per cent of the units earmarked for affordable housing.

Many of the projects involve historic churches and Kindred Works has tried to preserve as much of the history as possible.

Still, church member and volunteer Robert Bell, who was baptized at the church and after some time away returned as a regular worshipper in 1987, is worried about the building’s future.

“The congregation has literally run out of money – I do not know exact numbers but it is not good,” said Bell, who has acted as a photographer and historian in recent years and curated a display on the church’s past that is now at the Oshawa Public Library. “We have not been given any updates recently but the Simcoe Street trustees have handed the trust back to Kindred Works, who is taking all the properties and redeveloping them themselves for housing. I have big concerns.”

Simcoe Street United Church has been a landmark in Oshawa and focal point in the city for generations, with the bells from its imposing steeple signalling the end of the great wars of the last century, beckoning emergency workers to fight fires and other disasters and standing as a symbol for the resilience of its citizens.

Lancet-arched openings and that polygonal spire with pinnacles and dormers embellish the exterior. A pressed-tin ceiling, 36-foot ornamental timber arches and a massive sanctuary that holds 800 people immediately catch the eye inside.

The back wall is dominated by an impressive Casavant Freres (Sainte Hyacinthe, Quebec) organ built in 1920. The organ (Opus 851) is considered the finest of its kind between Oshawa and Kingston and as far as what will happen to it, Bell isn’t sure. “I would hope that they will protect it and allow it to be used,” he said. “It could be moved – but it would be very expensive as it was built in place. It is huge and very complex.”

Organist Bob Phillips at the controls of the Casavant Freres Opus 851

The church has been a beacon for those in need for many years, with part of the building turned over to the Back Door Mission and its mission to provide wrap-around support for the homeless and those suffering from addiction and mental illness, and the former manse was briefly the home of the Murray McKinnon House, which helps youth in conflict with the law.

The future of those good works are also uncertain.

While the church’s tomorrows are filled with question marks, the past is carved into its walls and is imprinted in the minds of its members. At Simcoe Street United Church, history is everywhere.

Webber said he remembered a recent conversation with a congregation member while looking at a wall adorned with pictures of former ministers.

“She started naming off the minister who married her great grandparents, the one who married her grandparents, her parents, herself, and who baptized her child. All of this on one wall. All just one person.”

“It is profound walking by the wall. So much converges there in local and family history.”

It’s a glimpse into the souls of the congregation, past and present, he noted.

“Just a look at those pictures as a clergy person … and I think about how the church has held yearning, prayers, confessions, babies at the front, maybe a British Home Child. So many stories decorate the place.”

Not all of the history is joyful, he added, but it is just as profound.

“There is a memorial plaque in the sanctuary noting names of men and women who served in the great wars and every year the rolls are read in the church. I came to appreciate more and more the family crisis and trauma this caused and which the clergy played an enormous part in leading those folks in,” he explained. “The days and nights and Sunday sermons for this community and around the area who had been enduring distressing times.”

“I’m not sure how you actually lead someone in those horrible times of learning about the death of multiple children in a family. How does anyone survive that grief? I imagine the clergy were faithful in their presence and though worn in their minds were helpful to some very destitute folks.”

The closing of the church is not something that is confined to Simcoe Street United, or to Oshawa. Churches have been closing across the country, given declining enrollments, immigration from non-Christian nations and the high cost of maintaining ageing infrastructure.

At Simcoe Street, congregation numbers had been slipping for years. Membership, which was about 1,500 active families in the 1970s and close to 400 pre-pandemic, has dwindled to barely 100 families today.

And then there was the steeple, which was damaged by wind and ice storms in 2018 and needed nearly $1 million in repairs. The steeple and roof suffered the most damage, with about a third of shingles gone with the wind and a pillar near the bell also toppled.

Sky-High Historical Restoration was given the contract to restore the steeple in 2020 and the congregation set to work fundraising to pay for it.

The steeple and the bell are operational now but the project quite literally broke the bank for the church and its members.

That situation led to two years of “entertaining many options” before the transition team presented the congregation with a motion to join Kingsview United Church, a few miles north-east on Adelaide Avenue, with the new history to begin April 21.

Not all will go there but many will, Webber said.

“You know, some decisions that you have to make and even the ones someone else will make for you turn out pretty well sometimes,” he pointed out. “I believe the ministry and work of Simcoe Street can be continued and grow in a place like Kingsview.”

Webber is confident the legacy of community service established by the church over the past century-and-a-half at Simcoe and Bagot can continue in the years ahead as well but for now, the congregation can think back on their own place in the history at Simcoe Street United during its final month.

“The church had always been in the community being attentive whatever the era,” Webber noted, adding that the church’s ‘faithfulness’ was “the heart it invested in the people who showed up” to hear the sermons. “It’s ironic that we just can’t do it as a congregation any longer. Our hearts might be strong but our knees are wearing out and many of us have had hip replacements!”

Bell remembers the stories in the ancient halls of the building, including many a ghost story he will relate to anyone who will listen. “Doors opening, strange sounds, organs playing when no one was in the church. Once a ladies group was meeting and heard a baby crying,” he recalled. “They searched but could not find anything so they called the police who did a complete search of the building – but still nothing. There have been a few people that died in accidents on the property as well but also many that have been comforted and strengthened by the church over the years.”

St. Luke’s United Church in Toronto. A Kindred Works project

Webber has faith that UPRC, which will manage the property and hold it until the property can be redeveloped by Kindred Works for both fair market and low-income housing, will do right by the congregation and the United Church.

The United Church’s development division has a decent track record in preserving historical churches while providing much-needed homes in the midst of a housing crisis, he noted.

“Kindred Works is very interested in using property in a way that is self sustaining and contributes to the community in just ways. It is sad to see the back part of the building slated for redevelopment in the future but there is a legacy there that will be affordable housing,” he said. “The very first service here affirmed that God’s spirit is not confined to one place ever.”

“These are complex times but the corner of Bagot and Simcoe will continue to be a place of learning and living among another generation in Oshawa.”

The oldest known photograph of Simcoe Street United Church

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