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Restored historic Presbyterian Church the sole remnant of Auld Kirk Scotch Settlement

July 2024

The Auld Kirk Scotch Settlement is long-gone, leaving only the Presbyterian Church, which sat abandoned for over half a century. This small church is one of many that can still be found across the rural landscape.

When driving along the rural sideroads across Canada and America, you will still see the occasional old, small church and one-room schoolhouse. For early rural communities, these small churches, built with either brick or wood, were often the centre of social activity for these communities.

Before the invention of the automobile, these small churches and schools were built close to the towns and farms where people lived, as traveling by foot or horse was time consuming.

As towns and cities grew and rural living, and more people moved away from the farms, congregations shrank and many small, rural churches were forced to close. Some have been repurposed, but many others were abandoned and demolished. An even smaller number remain active churches, although they may only hold services in the summer or on select occasions.

One of the churches that has been saved and restored is the old Presbyterian Church in the long-vanished Auld Kirk Scotch Settlement. Located in what was then West Gwillimbury Township, now the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury, the church dates back to 1869, when the church was built by Scottish immigrants as a replacement for a log church that dated back to 1822.

Auld Kirk was settled in 1815, when around 140 Scottish settlers from Lord Selkirk’s failed Red River Settlement in Manitoba returned to Upper Canada, disheartened by crop failures and the opposition from the North West Company. Taking up homesteads on newly-surveyed land in West Gwillimbury Township, these families made up the first and largest Scotch settlement in Simcoe County.

The Auld Kirk Presbyterian Church, sitting along Concession Line 6, west of Sideroad 20, is typical of the era; a beautiful symmetrical structure covered in red brick and off-white accents, with the windows and doors arched in a gothic style.

Services held the church were in the Gaelic language of the Scottish parishioners for a brief ten years, before the parish split, with some of the parishioners forming their own church in Bond Head, around five miles to the west. Others founded St. John’s Presbyterian Church, directly south of the Auld Kirk, on Line 5, east of the present-day Highway 400.

Although not having enough parishioners to sustain it as a place of worship, the Auld Kirk church did continue to be used for Christmas Concerts and other special events, such as weddings and meetings. The old church remained used in this manner until 1940, when it was deemed too small and outdated. Several of the existing Presbyterian churches, including Auld Kirk, merged under the St. John’s Presbyterian Church banner, near the Town of Bradford.

Sadly, the old Auld Kirk church fell into disuse and was slowly deteriorating. Compounding its abandonment, the construction of Highway 400, the first fully controlled-access highway in Ontario, which opened on 1 July 1950. The new highway cut across Line 6, leaving the already isolated church near the end of a dead-end road.

The church may have been abandoned, but it wasn’t entirely forgotten. A historical plaque was unveiled out front of the church in 1958. An outdoor service was held at the church in 1975.

The adjoining cemetery, which is still an active cemetery, is the final resting place of many of Simcoe County’s earliest settlers. Many of their descendants still live, and farm, in the area.

The church is now managed by the Bradford West Gwillimbury Local History Association (BWGHA), who have been actively undertaking the restoration and preservation of the historic church. When the first acquired the church, which had been sold to the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury by the United Church of Canada, the church was in poor condition. The ceiling was crumbling to pieces and the windows had long been boarded up.

In order to raise funds for its restoration, the BWGHA has began holding special community events in the month of June, starting in 2019 (interrupted by pandemic restrictions in 2020 & 2021), featuring an afternoon of history, entertainment, and refreshments and a special service in December each year.

The restoration was completed in 2022, with the town installing heat and hydro. Future plans for the church include holding special community events, like weddings, concerts and celebrations.

The historic cemetery, the final resting place for some of the township’s earliest settlers, is still sees the occasional burial.

Sources: https://www.bradfordtoday.ca/local-news/history-group-to-celebrate-200th-settlement-anniversary-at-auld-kirk-1486591, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auld_Kirk_Scotch_Settlement, Red River Colony – Wikipedia, Red River Colony – Wikipedia, Historical Society welcomes residents to reopening of Auld Kirk – Bradford News (bradfordtoday.ca), St John’s Presbyterian Church – Sharing the love of Christ (stjohnspresbyterian.ca), Scotch Settlement’s history being celebrated Sunday – Barrie News (barrietoday.com).

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-presbyterian-church-the-sole-remnant-of-auld-kirk-scotch-settlement/

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