Skip to content

Efforts to save historic Oro-Medonte church celebrated

Historian provides glimpse into how seven decades of community campaigns helped save and preserve what's now a National Historic Site
Following a major fundraising campaign in 2015, the African Methodist Episcopal church, located at the intersection of the third line of Oro-Medonte Township and Old Barrie Road, underwent major renovations.

There had been one other major fundraising campaign, in the 1940s, that saw the community come together to preserve this historic building.

Local historian John Merritt provided an informative and compelling presentation to the Orillia Museum of Art & History’s (OMAH’s) Speaker Series on Feb. 19.

He discussed how local people from outside the black community have taken up the cause for over seven decades to preserve the memory of this settlement, the church and its grounds, now designated a National Historic Site.

Merritt gave a brief history of the only government-sponsored black settlement in Upper Canada, established in 1819, which saw its population rise to approximately 100 black settlers by mid-century.

It was around 1849 that the simple one-room log church was erected. The settlement eventually declined, with the last descendent of the black settlers moving to Barrie in 1947.

The first campaign to save the church began in 1943, when a small group of locals began a grassroots campaign to preserve the run-down building and site. This group thought the church deserved to be saved, primarily because it represented a local connection to the Underground Railroad.

These first boosters understood this connection based on a few historical accounts from the turn of the century, which were based mainly on oral history and local legend.

New research uncovered in the 1970s, not available in the 1940s, revealed that, while some of the settlers may have at one time escaped from the southern states, many were from the northern states and several were veterans of the War of 1812.

The story of the second big fundraising and restoration campaign began in 2013 when the township commissioned a study by heritage building consultants.

In the winter of 2015, township staff and a new group of boosters, this time including descendants of the black settlers such as Janie Cooper-Wilson, launched a major fundraising campaign.

As a result, the building was restored to its pre-1940s condition, set on a solid foundation. Unlike the 1940s campaign, among other causes, restoration of the church became more of a testament to soldiers who helped to preserve our country, including the black settlers from the War of 1812.

Merritt concluded that what has been communicated to the public about this church and settlement has changed over time, according to available knowledge, and that this knowledge will likely continue to change.

Oro-Medonte Mayor Harry Hughes ended the presentation with some personal insight into the most recent fundraising campaign.

The Speaker Series continues on March 18 when conductor Neil Barlow and members of the Orillia Silver Band Quintet will regale you with a performance and conversation in celebration of their 70 years of bringing entertainment to Orillia and area.

Doors open at 7 p.m. and the talk begins at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free; donations are appreciated. All are welcome.