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Sadness and fear: St. Andrew's congregation displaced for months

Church official says it could be up to eight months before they can return to worship at Owen Street building following alleged arson
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in downtown Barrie sustained severe damage following an alleged arson on Feb. 19, 2023.

Members of the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian community met Sunday with their church leaders to discuss the future after a fire devastated their Owen Street building in downtown Barrie one week ago. 

The St. Andrew's congregation gathered at Collier Street United Church today for a morning service and subsequent information session following the alleged arson.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, around 10 p.m., Barrie Fire crews were called to the 140-year-old St. Andrew’s church for a blaze in the back of the building.

St. Andrew’s was left with visible exterior damage, including heavy black soot on the outer walls, as well as extensive damage in some rooms inside.

After a few other small fires were set in the downtown area, Barrie police arrested a suspect around 12:42 a.m., Monday.

A 37-year-old man, of no fixed address, has been charged with three counts of arson and failure to comply with a probation order. None of the allegations have been tested in court.

Mark Hoffman, who is chair of the St. Andrew's board of managers, said his takeaway from today's information session was what he called an enormous level of support from the congregation.

“Our church is going through quite a bit right now, and there is a high level of uncertainty with regards to when we open again, how we move forward as a congregation with regards to services," he said. "There is sadness and some fear, for sure. Today’s session was one of questions, but also of enormous support.”

It was announced at the meeting that Collier Street United Church, located just a few blocks from the fire-damaged church, has opened its doors to the people of St. Andrew’s and offered their offices to church staff and their area of worship for services as St. Andrew's members see fit. Mail will even be redirected from St. Andrew's to Collier United. 

The main topic of discussion at today’s meeting was how St. Andrew’s will proceed with what could be several months of Sunday services not in their regular building.

“Right now, we’re at the stage of emergency work. That means isolating the bad electrical components or water pipes that need tending to," Hoffman said. "We need to tend to any areas of the building that may be vulnerable — that is the first and most immediate priority, making the building as safe as possible, because we aren’t even allowed in yet.

“We’re very thankful to Collier Street United for welcoming us in so wholeheartedly," he added. 

There were 86 members of the St. Andrew’s congregation at today's meeting and some wished to have joint Sunday services with their hosts, while others wondered if it were best to hold their own before or after the Collier United mid-morning time slot.

“These are all things that we will discuss as a church. We spoke a bit about it today and took an early vote — not one that is deciding anything right now, but rather just to gauge the thoughts of members,” Hoffman said. “But for the next couple Sundays, we are happy to be guests of Collier Street United.”

It currently remains unknown how much damage was done from a monetary standpoint. When asked about fundraising, Hoffman said he was appreciative of people wanting to help, but said now was not the time.

“There will be time to help — we’re just not there yet,” he said. “We need to go through the insurance process and understand what the damage is, what is salvageable and what is not, and what is covered and what is not.

"It’s disingenuous to raise money when you don’t know what your need is.”

When asked by a church member at the meeting how long services would need to be held elsewhere, Hoffman said if he had to guess, it could be eight months.

“That would only be a guess, not a fact," he said. "The building is just not safe right now. We’re not even allowed in. There are several steps needed to get to where we can hold services in the church.

“Currently, the city has an order on (the building) requiring us to bring it up to a level of safety that is OK for use. And we just don’t know when that will be. There may eventually be plans that need submitted to the city for some rebuilding and having the city review and approve those possible plan, will take time, I'm sure," Hoffman added. 

While last weekend's fire doesn't appear to have damaged the oldest parts of the building, it did severely affect the wing that was added just after the First World War. That part of the structure includes the library and several historic items of the church.

“We will be cautious of throwing things away and will seek the input of members as to items that may hold some real significant sentimental and/or historical value to them, regardless of their state,” Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, Hoffman says he and the church members will rely on faith to help get through this.

“People have their own ways of getting through things. Having our faith to rely on, will really help the leadership and congregation to get through this,” he said. “God was not shocked at the fire. He is aware of our need and we know He will pull us through.”