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Downtown church back in congregation's hands after arson probe

St. Andrew's will partner with Collier Street United Church for this Sunday's service, which will be followed by town hall-style meeting
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church on Owen Street sustained significant damage following an alleged arson on Feb. 19.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is back in the congregation's hands following an alleged arson last Sunday, but there's still work to be done before use of the Owen Street building returns to normal.

While the location of upcoming Sunday services had been up in the air for a few days, parishioners now have an answer. Mark Hoffman, who is the chair of the church's board of managers, told BarrieToday they will be moving up the street this weekend.

“I am happy to say that we are partnering with Collier United Church and will be joining them for Sunday worship at 10:30 a.m.,” he said. “Immediately following that service, we’re going to be holding an information session for the congregation where we can explain the status of the building, share some pictures and explain more about the process I keep talking about.”

Fire crews were called to 47 Owen around 10 p.m., Feb. 19, after an exterior fire had been started at the church’s south side. The call was soon upgraded as smoke had filled the building. 

The 140-year-old downtown building was left with visible exterior damage, including heavy black soot on the outer walls, as well as extensive damage in some rooms inside.

“The benefit of a town hall-type session on Sunday is to speak to as many people at once, because there are a lot of questions, rightfully so,” Hoffman said. “Some want to know about the state of the organ, others want to know about the really nice piano, or various programs we provide for our congregation and community.”

In the last few days, Hoffman says he has been telling everyone to remain patient.

“We are just trusting the process here and this is not going to be a quick process,” he said.

Hoffman said the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), which has been investigating the blaze along with city police, released the property back to the church on Wednesday morning. 

"Within two hours, our insurance investigator was on the scene beginning to do his work," he added. 

Hoffman said a crew has been brought in to clean up and assess the damage, and he's also waiting on an engineer to do a structural assessment of the building.

“In the meantime, the City of Barrie building department has put a do-not-enter order on the building, so we now wait to see how it is doing structurally,” he said.

The cost of the damages has yet to be determined. 

Questions to the OFM about its on-scene investigation were directed to city police. 

Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon told BarrieToday there were no updates as of the exact cause of the fire, what was used as an accelerant or why the downtown church was targeted. 

The fire was set in the rear of the building, which faces the south-side parking lot. After a few other small fires were set in the area, police arrested a suspect around 12:42 a.m., Monday.

Lance Freeman, 37, 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.

While the church fire happened in an addition that was built shortly after the First World War, Hoffman it affected the church’s library and a lot of the history. 

St. Andrew’s opened its sanctuary on the corner of Owen and Worsley streets on Feb. 25, 1883, and added a Christian education wing after the First World War. It is in that addition where the library is located. 

The library was where many church artifacts were housed, including the original wooden doors from the church’s Owen Street entrance.

Hoffman says the incident could have been worse, but said he's trying not to get too emotional about it because there's work to be done.

“I’m relying on my training as a crisis manager to handle this without emotion, but there are down times where it begins to catch up with me,” he said. “It is an emotional thing, especially looking through the pictures of the damage.

"But I think everyone is channelling their emotions to be supportive and constructive.”

Hoffman likened the human response to the fire to that of other tragic events from the past.

“Obviously a different level, but when you look at the Boston Marathon bombing, you got the Boston Strong movement and people were pulling together and pushing forward," he said. "I believe that is the natural human response — to move ahead and support one another."