Skip to content

Arson at historic local church leaves congregation asking why?

'We are not going anywhere and while we view this as a temporary setback, we are going to push through it,' says church official

An alleged arson at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in downtown Barrie has left irreparable damage to the historic building and its congregation members are asking why.

The fire was called in around 10 p.m., Sunday, after city police say an exterior fire had been started at the church’s south side. The call was soon upgraded as smoke had filled the Owen Street building. 

Lance Freeman, 37, of no fixed address, has been charged with three counts of arson, following several fires set in the area, and failure to comply with probation order. None of the allegations have been tested in court. 

On Tuesday, Matt Hoffman, who is the chair of the church's board of managers, spoke to a reporter in the St. Andrew’s parking lot while fire crews continued to check the building. Although the extent of the damage is still being assessed, he said church members are not sure when they will be able to get back inside. 

“We have not been in the church yet, and we won’t be until they return control back over to us," Hoffman said. "That could be one or two days, I’m really not sure.

“As far as our next steps, we have to be able to go in and see what its accessibility is before we know what we can do moving forward," he added. 

Hoffman said the church typically has around 90 people for in-person services each Sunday. However, what will going forward remains unclear.

“There will be a Sunday service, we just don’t know if it will be this coming Sunday or not,” he said. “We are not going anywhere and while we view this as a temporary setback, we are going to push through it.”

Hoffman also expressed concern for some of the others who use the downtown building and will now be displaced temporarily. 

“We do have several groups that use the facility, so we are waiting to see just how long the delay to be inside will be — not just for us, but for them as well,” he said.

The area of the church where most of the heavy damage occurred is expected to hit many parishioners hard. The blaze and smoke severely damaged the library, which included many aspects of the church’s history. The church opened on Feb. 25, 1883.

According to the church's long history, Presbyterian Christians first began worshipping together in Barrie on Sept. 17, 1843 . However, it wasn’t until 1849, when they established the Barrie Presbyterian Church, which became St. Andrew’s. The Barrie Presbyterian Church officially became a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Canada on June 15, 1875.

The sanctuary, located on the southeast corner of Owen and Worsley streets, opened on Feb. 25, 1883 — which is 140 years this coming Saturday.

Hoffman said he received a phone call about the fire late Sunday night. 

“I got the call about the fire around 11 p.m., Sunday, and you know that a call that late can’t be good," he said. "On the way here, I’m thinking of the emotional and powerful parts of the church, obviously the sanctuary is first.

“But our history is in that library, including pictures of every minister going back to the origin of our church, music, photos, documents, you name it. From what I can see from just peeking in the window, it looks like a total loss," Hoffman added.

One woman who joined the conversation said she didn’t understand why the fire was set deliberately.

“Why us? We do lots to help those in the community who need help — we give, we’re there for people," said the woman, who did not provide her name. "Why would someone choose us to do this to."

The fire remains under investigation.

Deputy Fire Chief Ed Davis said the Office of the Fire Marshal will be called based on the findings of the joint investigation between the local fire department and city police.

“As this incident involves Barrie police, the investigation is extensive and ongoing, so determinations into cause, dollar loss and when the building will be repaired and returned to regular use cannot be pinpointed as of yet,” Davis said.


Verified reader

If you would like to apply to become a verified commenter, please fill out this form.

Shawn Gibson

About the Author: Shawn Gibson

Shawn Gibson is a staff writer based in Barrie
Read more