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Historical society to get help cleaning up church site destroyed by arson

County of Barrhead council approves $1,600 of in-kind work to clean-up the site of the historic Pioneer Memorial Church destroyed by arson in early December

BARRHEAD - The Barrhead and District Historical Society will get some help cleaning up the Pioneer Memorial Church's debris.

On May 7, councillors approved a request from the society to clean up the site. Public works staff estimate it will need roughly $1,600 of in-kind work to clean up the site.

Although the province owns the property, the society, sometime in the 2000s, became the site's caretakers.

The church, which was over 100 years old, burned to the ground in a Dec. 7 fire. The site is on Township Road 594 near the Hamlet of Thunder Lake.

It was the second fire of a historic church that evening, the first being at the St. Aidan's Church in Glenreagh. Both fires are believed to be arson.

The St. Aidan's Church fared a little better, and while it suffered extensive damage, it is still standing and is reparable.

County manager Debbie Oyarzun noted council had already cancelled the society's firefighting invoice, which was just over $3,000.

She added that, at the society's request, she and infrastructure director Ken Hove met with their representatives to discuss the challenges they were having cleaning up the site.

"There are some safety concerns. Some beams are still standing, and there is a lot of debris on the ground," she said, adding the society at that meeting stated that they were having difficulty cleaning up the site. 

The society requested the county's help removing the debris from the former historical church, whose real name was St. Mary Abbots Anglican, via an April 11 letter.

"Unfortunately, [the society] is in somewhat of a difficult financial situation at this time, and we are therefore requesting the County of Barrhead to take it upon themselves to clean up the property," he stated.

At the society's April 25 annual general meeting, retiring treasurer Scott Jevne stated at the end of 2023, its general account balance was $24,500, and its gaming account was $18,000.

Oyarzun said the request did not meet the municipality's community grant policy requirements. 

She added that if council did decide to grant the request, the funding would have to come from the community organizational reserve, whose current balance is roughly $93,000.

"The society does have some thoughts about future use of the site," Oyarzun said. "The site has a lot of traffic going past it, so they feel that they could turn it into a tourist site, with a bit of a clean-up and some redesign, but at this point, they are asking for in-kind support of about $1,600."

Coun. Bill Lane said he supported approving the request. He said he recently received a call from a person who had a "little church for sale" that they thought would be a perfect replacement for the Pioneer Memorial Church.

"It was built by a minister years ago," Lane said, adding that he went to view the structure and believed the idea had potential. He then passed the information on to the society.

After talking with the society's vice-president, Charlie Parsons, he believes the society has a different idea for the site.

Coun. Paul Properzi also said he supported the request but added that, in granting it, they would be setting a precedent, suggesting that they should expect to get a similar request for support from the St. Aidan's Community Church of Glenreagh Society.

The decision to grant the request was surprising as council, during their April 16 meeting, unanimously voted to withhold its annual grant to the society and suggested the Town of Barrhead council do the same. The county's annual grant is just under $5,000, while the town's contribution is $10,000.

"It has come to my attention that there are some concerns regarding the historical society board," Oyarzun said during the April 16 meeting, adding the concerns did not come from the board itself. "Public members who have attended board meetings, just as observers including some elected officials."

She added that she also started to have misgivings after reading copies of the society's meeting minutes.

"In reviewing the minutes, several questions came up regarding their governance procedures," Oyarzun said, adding the society's bylaws and policies were also outdated.

However, Oyarzun and several councillors, including Reeve Doug Drozd, Properzi, Lane and Walter Preugschas, who attended the society's AGM, stated at the May 7 meeting that they believed the society was on the right track to righting its troubles.

Barry Kerton,

Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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