An iconic church hall that contributed to building a vibrant local community for almost 125 years is being revered in a song written to describe what might have been a typical night at the St. John’s Matchedash Parish Hall.
The now shuttered church hall is located on the outskirts of Coldwater, but will live on as one of the original tunes recorded by the band, Matchedash Parish.
The song, St. John’s Matchedash Parish Hall, written by Orillia-based musician and producer, Lance Anderson, tells the imagined story of a Saturday night dance at the hall: “Step this way for the time of your life; Grab a partner and pick yourself a wife; It’s Saturday Night!”
The name of his band, along with the title track of its inaugural recording, was inspired by the rural church hall.
“Originally, I just liked the name Matchedash, as in the Orillia street name. But on a bike ride one day, I came across the St. John’s Matchedash Parish Hall; it seemed so distinctive to me and I thought that it would make a good song,” explained Anderson.
“I came home and wrote the song, imagining the Parish Hall on a Saturday night. That was about 15 years ago.”
The song wasn’t recorded until Anderson formed the band, Matchedash Parish, a few years ago.
“When it came to naming the band, I did some research and discovered that Matchedash is an Anishinaabemowin word meaning marshy land. Our style of music is based on New Orleans and what we call a swampy sound. And Parish seemed to fit because there are 12 of us – almost a congregation.”
Anderson’s imagination – turned into song lyrics – of a lively dance night at the Parish Hall turned out to be quite accurate, especially when it comes to Mildred Walker, who was born and raised in Matchedash, and met her husband at the hall.
“On Saturday nights, we had 'Get Acquainted' square dances,” explained Walker. “December 27, 1960 was a big event for me because it was the night I met my husband.
Her husband-to-be, Don Walker, had come the dance as part of the youth group from nearby Fairvalley Church. As the event name implies, the idea was for the young dancers to get to know each other, guided by the caller.
“During the dance, each couple takes turns stepping out of the square with their partner to ‘get acquainted’ before dancing back into the centre as a group. Don and I were the third couple," recalled Mildred.
"The first couple was asked to shake hands; the second couple kissed on the cheek. I was a bit frightened, wondering what was coming for the third couple. Well, Don kissed me on both cheeks! Throughout the dance we ended up kissing six times – or 12 if you count both cheeks. So we got to know each other. It was love at first fright," she quipped.
“We were married at St. John’s Matchedash Church, had the reception at the hall, and lived happily ever after, mostly!” added Walker.
Walker said she also has fond memories of learning how to dance with her father, John Silk, at hall dances.
“There was always a record player and caller, and in later years, sometimes a jam session with piano, guitar and violin.”
Located at the corner of Upper Big Chute Road and Silk Road in Severn Township (formerly Orillia and Matchedash Townships), St. John’s Matchedash Church was built in 1892 on 1.5 acres of land that had been transferred to the Anglican Diocese from Joseph S. Gill and his wife Catherine. The Parish Hall was added later, in 1928.
“It was actually built from an old hall that was brought across the ice from Waubaushene,” explained Tom Taylor, a long-time church member and neighbour. “It was during the end of the lumber era in Waubaushene, the headquarters for the Georgian Bay Lumber Company, founded by Anson Dodge.”
The Parish Hall was a focal point for the community over the years, up until it closed, along with the church, in 2016.
“The hall was where everything happened – dances, card games, get-togethers to celebrate births, deaths, weddings, anniversaries, and the square dances. The annual turkey suppers were legendary,” said Janet Coombs, former church warden for St. John’s.
“At the back of the hall there were shelves, that on turkey supper nights, were full of pies and you could eat as much as you wanted,” added Coombs. “Of course, lots of the kids would volunteer to help out at these dinners.”
Walker also mentioned the annual turkey suppers as being a highlight, and said she volunteered at the dinners for as long as she can remember.
“I used to tell people that when you got married at St. John’s, you promise to love, cherish and honour, and to work at the turkey suppers every year,” she laughed.
Even though the cost was just $10 or $15/plate and half-price for kids, the suppers became a fundraising event that helped support the church. A large group of volunteers would typically serve over 500 people at five settings.
“My mother would prepare food for a week before the supper. I remember one year, she supplied 17 pies on the day of the supper,” said Walker.
“I feel very sad about the church closing,” said Walker. “It seems like closing up little country churches is the way things are done now.”
For Coombs, the closure of the church and hall is a big loss. She spent over 30 years as a volunteer, beginning as Sunday school teacher. Coombs went on to become the church warden, a position she held up until St. John’s closed.
Her outstanding service as a volunteer was recognized in 2014 when she received the Order of the Diocese of Toronto Award, presented for her “key leadership as churchwarden, Sunday school teacher and board member over the past 34 years.”
“The sense of community just isn’t the same without the church,” said Coombs. “I miss the fellowship and the opportunities of being together with friends and neighbours.”
“The congregation at St. John’s, as small as it was, was always very tight and unified,” said Reverend Ron McLean, who was rector at the Matchedash church when it closed.
“They worked hard together and had enormous respect for the church," McLean explained.
“Our annual cemetery service is always very well attended,” he added. "It is held in memory of loved ones and is also a chance for fellowship. People come from all over the province to remember and to see friends and family. That tradition will continue.”
With such a long history serving the community, there must have been many memorable occasions and life-changing moments that took place throughout the decades at St. John’s Matchedash Parish Hall.
Hopefully, Anderson’s tune can revive some of those memories. His band will be performing the song at the Mariposa Folk Festival/Kinaxis In Concert presentation of Matchedash Parish live at the Orillia Opera House on Aug. 22 and on its Facebook page Aug. 27.
Thank you to Mary Silk of Orillia for contributing to this story and sharing information from Matchedash Memories, published by the Municipality of the Township of Matchedash, 1988.
Now closed, St. John’s Matchedash Anglican Church, holds many fond memories for local residents. Photo: Kathy Hunt