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Central United Church recounts the memories as its counts down its days

Central United Church is preparing to leave Barrie after more than 150 years. The faith community, which is in its fourth building on the western edge of downtown, will close its ministry Sunday, June 25, at 2 p.m. A final music concert takes place Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Next Sunday, Central United Church will leave Barrie after more than 150 years.

The faith community, which is in its fourth building on the western edge of downtown, will close its ministry Sunday, June 25, at 2 p.m.

From there, minister Colin MacDonald will carry memories of not just parishioners, but of people involved in an array of community groups, as he recharges on a mission trip for a year of doing ‘pulpit supply’, filling in for ministers needing a holiday.

“This is the fourth building we’ve had. The first three buildings were where Casa Mia is,” said the 62-year-old MacDonald, who has served in the United Church of Canada for almost 35 years.

The congregation’s buildings were hit by fire and flood. The first building, constructed in  1865 by a group of pioneering Methodists, burnt down in 1872. Throughout the decades, the faith community has been known by several names. It began as Elizabeth Street Methodist Church, then Central Methodist Church and in 1925 when the United Church of Canada was born, it became Central United Church.

The current building, which dates to 1957, has known many people and witnessed a lot of struggle in its 60-year history.  

“I call it my Frank Lloyd Wright rip-off,” said MacDonald, referring to the iconic American architect who transformed building design as he worked to connect the building to nature and bring nature into the building with cantilevered roofs, lots of light and lots of materials harvested from the area – various woods or stone.

It, too, however, has seen the damage a flood (specifically a sewer backup) can cause. A poor reconnection to the city’s sewage system after work was being done in the area several years ago resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, an incredible setback for the congregation which was getting older and smaller.

“The building was built in the 1950s when oil was cheap. There’s no insulation. It’s beautiful but falling apart. It needs $1.5 to $2 million to be retrofitted.”

The church decided to sell the building and disband, with a final worship service – which is open to the community – at 2 p.m. June 25.

“The congregation has given so much to the community, just in outreach alone” said MacDonald, recalling the nights with Barrie Out of the Cold over the past 20 y ears.

Central, too, has opened its doors to the David Busby Street Centre, a nursery school (which folded when Ontario introduced full-time JK and SK), Alcoholics Anonymous, a Taekwondo school and a hand-bells choir.

The church and its members always opened their doors when help was needed in an emergency. In the May 1985 tornado, it was the headquarters for gathering clothing for people who suddenly had nothing.

More recently, when the Wellington Hotel suddenly exploded and burned down in December 2007 and left people homeless, Central provided the space for them to go, come to terms with their loss and get the help they needed to begin again.

Ann Macklem, who joined the church 49 years ago when her children were “just babes”, was one of those hit by the tornado. Her home on Innisfil Street was destroyed.

“There were quite a few people from the church that were involved in the Big T of ’85,” she recalled.

She always made a point of giving back and helping when she could – in fact, she’s the person MacDonald said he could always call if something needed to be done.

Macklem said she will remember the memories and the people she laughed and shared with throughout all those years.

“The baking ladies were a fun bunch of ladies. We called ourselves the Slice of Life, SOL. We sold our baking here and up at the mall at Christmas and there’s none of those ladies left but me. We baked bread, cookies, muffins, you name it and we sold it,” she said.

At the well-known Christmas bazaar, there was not only baking, but a collectible mouse, made by another group.

“We’d spend weeks and weeks making costumes and putting eyes and whiskers on them,” she recalled, adding each year, the crafters chose a different mouse to make. One year, it was for custodian (and now Barrie Town Crier Steve Travers), another year it was for the arrival of the kilted minister MacDonald.

There was even a mouse celebrating the Slice of Lifers, complete with a recipe and a rolling bin. Of course, there was one for the craft group, with a basket that included knitting, counted-cross stitch, tatting and quilting.

“They all had a reason why they were done,” she recalled.

It was a collectible reflection of the church community, which reached out in so many creative and compassionate ways.

From the money from the sale of the building, Central has been giving legacy gifts to those organizations it has supported. But, it’s also continuing its ministry of supporting refugees; in 1979, the congregation sponsored a Vietnamese family. Now, they are helping with a Syrian refugee family that arrived earlier this spring.

“What we did 38 years ago, they remember. Now we’re bringing a Syrian family. There will be a Syrian family that will know our family,” said MacDonald.

But this week, as next Sunday approaches, perhaps the impending loss will be heard by more people.

“The acoustics in the sanctuary is second to none,” noted MacDonald, something the community got to experience during the years of Colours of Music and other Barrie musical events and concerts.

The last concert, featuring the Simcoe County Concert Band, takes place June 24 at 7:30 p.m.

“It’s going to be a great loss to the city,” said MacDonald.