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179-year-old Shanty Bay church serves more than just Anglicans these days (6 photos)

St. Thomas Anglican Church, with its steep pitched roof and lancet windows, is a provincial heritage site

From religious services to weddings to potlucks, churches reflect their communities.

One particular house of worship  which has a construction style going back centuries  is just up Kempenfelt Bay from Barrie: St. Thomas Anglican Church in Shanty Bay. Fittingly, it's located on Church Street in the Oro-Medonte Township village. 

For just around 180 years now, it has been a gathering place, according to Ted Bigelow, who is a direct descendent of Lt.-Col. Edward O’Brien, the founder of the village, and his wife Mary, who donated the land for the church and the original clergyman’s residence.

O’Brien’s son, William Edward O’Brien, would later also become a lieutenant-colonel and commanded the 35th Battalion, the Simcoe Foresters, from 1882 until 1898. He also commanded the York Simcoe Battalion during the 1885 Riel Rebellion.

Construction of the church began in June 1838 and the church was officially dedicated as St. Thomas Anglican Church in February 1842.

According to Canadian Military History author Bruce Forsyth, the bell within the tower has hung there since January 1864.

The Rev. S.B. Ardagh  a name that will be familiar to many Barrie residents as the moniker behind Ardagh Road  served as rector from 1842 to 1867.

“It’s a community church, nominally Anglican, but there are people of every denomination who attend it and presently there are people from Barrie attending,” Bigelow says, adding other social gatherings were also held at the church. “Whenever they held a fundraising event, that would bring the community in and a lot of the local residents would help out, whether they came to the church regularly or not.”

Like many other area couples who have chosen St. Thomas Anglican Church to tie the knot, David and Karen Hodgson made it official on Aug. 23, 1980.

“We were a young couple with a small budget for a wedding, so we needed a place where we could also host a dinner and dance,” Karen tells BarrieToday. “St. Thomas is a community church and they arranged for a home-cooked meal served in the adjoining hall, which was much smaller than you see it today.”

Growing up in Barrie, Shanty Bay sometimes beckoned, she says.

“The town dock was a popular destination for swimming day and night when I lived in Barrie and we had family living nearby St Thomas church,” Karen says.

“Karen’s parents were married at this same church in 1955,” David adds. “So there was a strong family connection and we had always intended to be married there as well.

“At the time, St Thomas was a sister congregation to my church, St. Giles Anglican Church, in Barrie on Cook Street. The Rev. Basil Tonks, who took care of both congregations, was a family friend and his son Bernard was in our wedding party.”

The church, with its steep pitched roof and lancet windows, is a provincial heritage site as deemed by the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of the Department of Public Records and Archives of Ontario, in no small part due to its construction.

According to Forsyth, the Gothic Revival-style church is one of the few remaining structures in Ontario built with the "rammed earth" construction method, which involves mixing wet clay with chopped straw, compacted into forms and covered, when dry, with plaster or siding for durability and protection against weather.

“The interior includes the original wood flooring, ceiling beams, reredos (a large altarpiece, a screen or decoration placed behind the altar in a church) and interior paneling, all hand hewn from local pine, ash and cedar, with adze (tool) marks still visible on them,” he says. “The original square wooden pews also remain in use by the parishioners.”