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Restored historic Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church re-opens to great fanfare

August 2016

On 19 August 2016, a ceremony was held to commemorate the re-opening of the historic Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church at the intersection of Line 3 North and Old Barrie Rod in Oro-Medonte Township.

Several dignitaries attended he public ceremony including Ontario Lieutenant-Governor The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, MPs Alex Nuttall and Bruce Stanton, MPP and PC leader Patrick Brown, Oro-Medonte Mayor Harry Hughes and members of the military in Simcoe County, including several historical re-enactors in period uniforms of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Special guests included Janie Cooper-Wilson, a descendant of Private Samuel Thomas, a soldier in Captain Runchey’s Company for Coloured Men who settled in the area after the war and was one of the founding members of the church, and Toronto Argonauts legend and newly-minted Canadian citizen Michael “Pinball” Clements, who served as Master of Ceremonies.  Pinball joked that he is American by birth, but Canadian by choice.

The Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church was built between 1846 and 1849 and is one of, if not, the oldest African log church still standing in North America. This small church was erected by a community of Black Settlers on property granted to them for service to the crown during the War of 1812, one of the earliest Black settlements in Upper Canada (present day Ontario). 

Many of the early settlers were veterans of Captain Runchey’s Company for Coloured Men, which fought at Stoney Creek, Queenston Heights, Lundy’s Lane and St. David’s, while others were freemen and the formerly enslaved blacks from the United Sates.  According to local historian Tim Crawford, it was the first time in recorded history that a developed nation treated blacks as equal to whites.  They initially settled along Line 1, also known as Wilberforce Road.   Despite some stories to the contrary, the Simcoe County Archives advises the black settlement was not a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The small log church was originally built with the logs exposed on both sides but a decade later, the outside was covered in clapboard.  The congregation used the church until sometime in the 1920s.  By the 1940s, the church was in disrepair.  A restoration was undertaken between 1947 and 1949 by local school teacher W.R. Best and former Ontario Premier E.C. Drury to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the construction.

Sadly, the church was declared abandoned in 1977 and was taken over by Oro Township.

The church was designated a National Historic Site in 2000, but the church continued to deteriorate.

In 2013, the Oro-Medonte Township acquired the services of Heritage Consultants to prepare a Cultural Heritage Assessment (CHA) to assess the building condition and develop a long term strategy for its preservation. The assessment concluded that the condition of the Church is far worse than expected, and as a result it was closed to the public until a comprehensive restoration effort could be undertaken. Its survival is now at risk.

A major part of the restoration, which began last year, was reinforcing the original ceiling joists, which was in danger of collapse, stabilizing the floor and adding new clapboard siding and cedar shingles on the roof.   Most of the original building materials were left in, or returned to, their original place as part of the restoration.  The uneven roof line was left as is, along with the not-so-straight walls, windows and wainscoting, as it was decided to present the restored church as the aged building that it is, not a brand-new building.

During the restoration, workers uncovered some of the original mud chinking used to seal the original log-wall structure, with the fingerprints of the original construction workers still imprinted in the dried mud.

Future plans for the church may include turning it into a museum or educational centre connected to the Simcoe County Museum and Archives.  There may even be services or weddings held at the church once again.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/restored-historic-oro-african-methodist-episcopal-church-re-opens-to-great-fanfare/

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