Trevor Carter and Laurie Patchell are members of the 150th anniversary committee at St. Patrick’s parish in Phelpston, Ont., not far from the shores of Georgian Bay. Photo by Andrew Philips

At St. Patrick’s, many families can be traced back to parish origins

By  Andrew Philips, Catholic Register Special
  • September 18, 2015

PHELPSTON, ONT. - A priest who once celebrated Mass at Phelpston’s St. Patrick’s parish understood the power of radio long before televangelists sought the spotlight stateside.

Fr. Frank Stone, who was ordained a Paulist priest in 1936 and passed away in 1986, was a prominent theologian who came from St. Patrick’s in Phelpston, a parish that marked its 150th anniversary Sept. 19-20.

“He believed strongly in the power of radio to convey God’s message,” explained Trevor Carter, a history buff and member of St. Patrick’s 150th anniversary committee.

“In his later position as director of the Catholic Information Centre (a post he held for 25 years), he used radio to broadcast Catholic teachings and Masses from (Toronto’s) St. Michael’s Cathedral.”

Besides the parish’s link to a broadcast pioneer, St. Patrick’s has a long and interesting history that traces its roots to the Irish immigrants who settled in the area in the northern reaches of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Carter said the rich farmland throughout the area attracted so many Catholic settlers in the early 19th century that the Archdiocese of Toronto needed to create a stand-alone parish, leading to the founding of St. Patrick’s in 1865.

“Construction of St. Patrick’s Church would begin in 1891, under the tenure of Fr. Gearin, who served the parish for an astounding 45 years, only completing his time in our parish with his death, just before the onset of the Great Depression in 1929,” said Carter.

“His grave and monument of St. Michael the Archangel sit prominently in St. Patrick’s cemetery today.”

The parish maintains a strong connection with its past. Of the people in the pews each week, many are descendants of the original parishioners.

“Many of those attending services today share the same last names of those who were part of the original congregation,” Carter said during an interview at the majestic red brick church, which seems all the more imposing after passing alongside the tiny village’s smaller homes and shops in this largely rural, agricultural community not far from Wasaga Beach and the shores of Georgian Bay.

While the building exterior features fine architectural designs, the church’s interior is simply spectacular with ornate lanterns, dark wooden ceilings and beams and long wooden pews accompanied by eye-catching iron work and warm stained-glass windows, including one that recognizes the contributions made by those who worked towards later restoration efforts.

Fellow 150th committee member Laurie Patchell said the parish has always had a solid congregation, drawing from not just Phelpston and nearby Elmvale, but also from further afield.

“There are a lot of original families that are still here 150 years later,” said Patchell, who lives near Moonstone, but first attended the church while living in Toronto and cottaging nearby during the summer months.

“It’s always had a nice, friendly atmosphere.”

The church’s congregation celebrated the parish Sept. 19 and 20 with a number of special activities, including memorabilia from its rich history, as well as a special commemorative Mass and a parish brunch.

“Every living priest from this parish will be here,” Carter said.

But like life itself, the parish, now led by Fr. Jim Bussanich, has had to triumph over adversity, including a devastating fire close to two decades ago.

“After the fire, the insurance coverage wasn’t enough to complete the rebuilding,” Carter said, adding the parish held various fundraisers such as an oldtimer’s hockey game and cookbook sales along with pledges by parishioners and non-parishioners alike, including those from other faiths.

“Parishioners managed to save much of the religious articles from inside, and the high altar and sanctuary were miraculously untouched, but the majority of the roof was completely destroyed,” Carter said.

“The church was able to rebuild and officially reopen in 2000, just three years after the fire of 1997.”

Today, the parish maintains two churches — St. Patrick’s and Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Elmvale.The Elmvale church was built in the 1980s, and held extra Masses while St. Patrick’s was rebuilt.

(Philips is a freelance writer in Midland, Ont.)

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