Last week, David Paul looked out with sadness over a major part of his family history, which has now been reduced to a pile of bricks, stones and rubble.
The East Nottawasaga Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1864 on what is now Fairgrounds Road South in Clearview Township, was torn down last week after years of back and forth between the owners of the land (the Presbyterian Church of Canada through the Barrie Presbytery) and families of the people laid to rest in the cemetery that surrounds the church.
“I was driving home from work and I drove by and I saw all this heavy construction equipment. They’d knocked all the bricks down,” Paul explained. “I’m really quite upset about it.”
The land was originally donated by Neil and Isabelle Paul, David’s ancestors, on Nov. 3, 1849 to the church for five shillings. Paul currently lives in Collingwood, and said he has a few other family members who also still live in the area and saw the church as part of their family history.
The congregation of the church amalgamated with Jubilee Presbyterian Church in Stayner in the late 1970s. While the building doesn’t have any servicing such as water, plumbing or hydro, one church service a year has been held since the move.
“I go there once a year and have been for the past 25 years. In the lobby, there was a guest book. I signed my name and contact information. I find it hard to believe they were really looking for family members,” said Paul. “I would have gladly taken the place back. I’m a history guy myself. I would have loved to restore it. I have the money to do it.”
In addition to being upset about the building being torn down, Paul says he was also disappointed to see deep construction equipment track marks in the cemetery land, as well as some damage to a grave marker.
“It’s a real slap in the face to my family,” said Paul. “They donated the land. There are 176 people buried in there, not counting all the children. Those people are not able to defend themselves.”
Speaking on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Canada and the Barrie Presbytery, Rev. Darren May of Jubilee Presbyterian Church in Stayner says the East Nottawasaga church has sat mostly empty since the late 1970s.
“In 1979 it was officially amalgamated into Jubilee Presbyterian Church,” said May. “That meant any remaining worshipping members joined Jubilee or any other church they chose at that time, East Nottawasaga was, essentially, abandoned.”
“It has sat abandoned since then.”
May said the church started to show signs of serious wear and tear in 2016 when the bricks on the back of the building started to fall off.
“Out of concern for the public’s safety because there were bricks falling off and visitors to the graves, we have been anxious for many years,” said May. “We are in an age where the church is struggling and we can’t afford to [maintain it].”
He noted the West Nottawasaga Presbyterian Church was also demolished earlier this past summer for similar reasons.
“It’s part of a reality we’re facing in the culture. It’s not a joy, by any means. We tried our best to maintain it,” said May. “It’s very painful to see this church being demolished.”
“We’re not in the business of maintaining museums. We’re in the business of helping people in their lives to walk with their God,” he said.
Clearview Township does not have a historic building registry. Currently, there is only one historic site in all of Clearview: Bethel Pioneer Cemetery near New Lowell. In order to be considered for a historic designation, the owner of a site must apply for such a designation, which had not happened for the East Nottawasaga church.
In 2018, May says a member of the cemetery volunteer board, Warren Morrison, expressed interest in purchasing the church. May says the church offered to sell the building to Morrison for $1.
“The negotiations carried on for about three to four years. We could not arrive at an agreement for purchase sale,” said May.
Morrison has a personal connection to the cemetery as his great-great grandfather is buried there, as are his parents and his brother.
“There’s been someone on the board from my family since the beginning,” Morrison told CollingwoodToday.ca. “There have been a lot of people who have tried to do the right thing here over the years.”
Morrison acknowledges that negotiations began for the purchase of the property, and that he, along with the rest of the cemetery board, had done fundraisers over the years to pay for the upkeep of the grounds and had earmarked funds to repair the building, raising an estimated $15,000.
However, he says when he inquired in the midst of the pandemic about a year ago on the status of a possible deal, he was told the church was no longer interested.
“They said they weren’t at liberty to discuss it anymore,” said Morrison.
According to Clearview Township’s chief building official Scott McLeod, the church applied to the township for a demolition permit on Sept. 8, and it was granted on Sept. 14.
Morrison says he only found out the church was being demolished when he drove by last week and saw the work in progress.
“My heart fell through the floor. This is generations of people who have cared for this place and looked after it,” said Morrison. “It’s a shame.”
When reached for comment late last week, Clearview Township Mayor Doug Measures said he had received many calls on the matter.
“This entire event has been very upsetting,” said Measures. “The Presbytery have left a deep impact to this community’s confidence in their actions this week.”
May says that throughout the demolition process, one grave marker was damaged. He says the church has committed to covering the cost of a replacement marker.
Looking forward and in consultation with the community, May says the Presbytery of Barrie has granted permission to have the church place a memorial bench on the land with a plaque to commemorate and honour the worshipping community that existed there.
He also noted they had donated some of the wood from the building to the Paul family as a “gesture of goodwill and healing.”
However for Paul, it’s not enough. He said an apology from the church might help.
“You can’t put a dollar amount on the sentimental (value). There’s too much history here and it’s been destroyed. They can put a bench in here, or a plaque, but the damage is done,” said Paul. “This could have been saved. There’s no reason why this had to happen.”